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What It Feels Like to Be Kept in Los Angeles Prisons When You’re a Teen

LOS ANGELES — Kim McGill was only 12 years old when she was first arrested and incarcerated for grand larceny. As a young girl, she had taken order requests from individuals, stolen and sold the items. At 13, she was charged with a felony for the second time and imprisoned in a juvenile detention center for shoplifting more than $1,000 worth of merchandise. After that she was prosecuted for several misdemeanor cases, both as a youth and an adult.

As a former felon and now the lead organizer of the Youth Justice Coalition, McGill is against confinement.

“It's not about fixing the system so people re-enter with more resources,” she said. “It's about knowing that you can't get well in a cell, you can't grow in a cage.”

McGill’s memories still gnaw at her today. She described sleep deprivation due to extreme air conditioning, fluorescent lighting and lack of sufficiently warm clothing. She recalled the absence of any external stimulation: the lack of windows, the inability to see the sky and the deficiency of engaging activities.

The walls were all one color, usually beige or white. Steel cells, tables and beds were the only items in the lock-ups, unless a concrete slab protruded from the wall as a makeshift frame. Sleeping on the floor was not uncommon, nor was seeing the physically most vulnerable people being forced to sleep with their heads next to the toilet in an overcrowded cell. McGill remembered how inmates were talked at, not spoken to; and how the explicit use of her last name made her fail to feel like a human being, let alone like a child.

The United States leads the industrialized world in the number and percentage of children it locks up in juvenile detention facilities, according to Human Rights Watch.

In California, 71,923 juveniles were arrested in 2015 according to a report from the California Department of Justice. Slightly more than 58,000 were referred to probation, about 13,000 were counseled and released, and approximately 1,000 youth were turned over to another agency.

Meanwhile, improvements have been made. Lawmakers unveiled a list of bills in March 2017 in an attempt to divert youth from a school-to-prison pipeline and keep them out of the juvenile justice system.

“We have made really big progress, we just have to do a lot more,” said Dr. Bo Kyung (Elizabeth) Kim, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “We still incarcerate the most vulnerable population in this country. ... More than any other country in the world.”

Confinement conditions

Among her bad memories were the powerlessness: “As a young person you’re in cells usually with no bathrooms. So, you’re pounding on the door or a plexiglass window ... in the door, to try to get someone’s attention so you could pee. [You are] especially desperate in the middle of the night when you’re locked in, and having people either know that you’re pounding and ignore you, or pretend not to hear you, and having to pee into a towel or into a corner or hold it all night. That was particularly horrible.”

But the boredom was the worst.

Being in a place where pencils, pens, books and paper are all considered contraband, she said, inmates could spend hours, days and sometimes months without the ability to read or write, let alone do anything else to stimulate your mind.

“Once I had a nickel on me that wasn't caught during the search and I wrote with it into an entire cell wall,” she remarked. Although there would be dayroom time, it was rarely programmed to help you grow.

Contemplating whether she had found solace in anything or anyone during her most vulnerable moments, she said, “[I] can't think of any positive thoughts that got me through anytime.”

Young people who go into the system are particularly vulnerable, McGill said.

“Because of your age or because of your lack of experience, you’re introduced to people who have been much more involved in the streets,” she said. “So, prisons, jails [and] juvenile halls are also breeding grounds for violence.”

McGill pauses for a moment before saying strip searches were obviously another distinct memory. She would have to “strip down naked in front of total strangers, not only the people that you’re locked up with but the guards. In [the] case of the youth system, it’s probation officers. In [the] case of the adult system, it’s usually sheriffs, sometimes police officers.”

The stench of the facilities is another feature she vividly recalls as being unbearable. “I think that anyone who’s been locked up can smell … exactly how it smelled when we were there,” she said. “And you can differentiate between the facilities you’ve been based on the smells they had.

“Sounds at night are also something that never leaves you,” McGill said, “whether it’s the pounding of doors, crying, screaming, people mumbling to themselves, people rhyming … yelling, arguing with each other.”

But even so, McGill said she was better off than many other people who have been in solitary confinement and were sentenced to life in prison.

Racial profiling

One of the most impactful things for her development was growing up in communities of color, she said.

“I think I had the benefit of seeing the obvious issues in the system from a very young age … When you’re white [like me], and you’re going through it, it’s really obvious to you that you’re getting preferential treatment.”

On the streets, McGill was treated as a victim while her friends were viewed as criminals. She recalled being taken aside by police twice and asked if she had been kidnapped. She was constantly queried about why she was in specific areas, if she knew they were dangerous and if she wanted a ride home.

A 2017 report from Human Impact Partners found that in 2015, 88 percent of juveniles in California who were tried as adults were youth of color.

The record also cited evidence of “rampant racial inequities … in the way youth of color are disciplined in school, policed and arrested, detained, sentenced, and incarcerated.”

Crissel Rodriguez, the Southern California regional coordinator at the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, agreed.

“We see that the zero tolerance policy has actually really affected communities of color,” Rodriguez said.

Kim said youth of color are much more likely to be in touch with police negatively at every single point of contact in the system, and they are more likely to be taken further into the system than out of it.

“The justification for that for the judges themselves, is that ... it’s dangerous, so we are going to detain them,” Kim said. “It’s a way to protect them. But under the purview of protecting them, they’ve further introduced them to a system that brings them back over and over again.”

Detention dispute

In 2012 Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 9, which supported judges reconsidering the sentences of juveniles punished to life in prison. After that, most of the state’s juvenile life-sentenced prisoners are being resentenced, according to The Sentencing Project.

Brown signed SB 394 in October, legislation that now outlaws the state from sentencing youth offenders to life in prison without possibility for parole.

Today McGill, 36, leads the Youth Justice Coalition, an organization that challenges the U.S. “addiction” to incarceration and race, gender and class discrimination in the juvenile “injustice” systems. To her, and most people in the coalition, this crusade is personal.

“The greatest feeling that myself, and I think other people, have got has come through our organizing and fighting back to change the system,” she said. “It’s healed us more than any other single thing has.”


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Growing Movement Toward Localizing Juvenile Justice

Not since the opening of the first juvenile reform school in 1886 has our nation’s approach to confining delinquent youth experienced such fundamental and widespread change. From California to New York, states are reducing juvenile placements, shuttering facilities and shifting money and kids to county control. If done thoughtfully, it’s a trend that holds much promise.

This national realignment movement took a huge step forward on Sept. 1, when New York state’s “Close to Home” law went into effect. When fully operational, the law will ensure that all but a handful of delinquent youth from our nation’s largest city are cared for locally in New York City, rather than in large, distant and debilitating state institutions.

The passage of Close to Home was the culmination of more than a decade of work. Between 2002 and 2011, the city reduced institutional placements of delinquent youth by 62 percent, while experiencing a 31 percent decline in major felony arrests of juveniles.

Under Close to Home, New York City is creating a continuum of high-quality, community-based programs and facilities. City youth who were formerly placed in “non-secure” state facilities are being transferred to 35 small facilities run by non-profits located near their home; the same will happen next fall for youth in “limited secure” placement. By freeing up funds that were tied to antiquated reform schools, Close to Home will allow the city to fund more and better community-based programs, which will in turn improve public safety and further reduce unnecessary confinement.

The initiative, which was shepherded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and passed with bi-partisan support, has many advantages over the traditional state-centralized, institution-based model. Instead of being sent to large institutions far away from home, which often requires families to travel hundreds of miles, parents and guardians will now be able to take the subway to see their child, facilitating family therapy and helping the young person transition back into the community. Instead of being confined in state institutions with unaccredited schools, youth will remain in the New York City school system, assuring that they get credit for their work and improving their chances of staying in school.

New York state isn’t alone in maintaining public safety by localizing juvenile justice and reducing institutionalization. California reduced the number of confined young people from more than 10,000 in 1996 to fewer than 1,000 today. In California, 99 percent of adjudicated youth are now housed or supervised by counties, with county costs defrayed by $93.4 million in state funds last year alone.

A look at crime data from the California Department of Justice shows that these changes have not come at the expense of public safety. While the incarcerated state youth population in California declined by 84 percent from 1996 to 2008, the juvenile arrest rate declined by 32 percent. Meanwhile, as the adult prison population was increasing by 21 percent during that same time, the adult arrest rate declined by a more modest 15 percent.

In Michigan, Wayne County, which includes Detroit, had 731 youth confined in state facilities in 1998; last year it had four. When state and county officials agreed to realign care and funds from the state to the county, county officials contracted with five Care Management Organizations (CMOs), which are similar to HMOs. The CMOs receive a block grant for the youth in their catchment area, which incentivizes them to place youth in local, successful and cost-effective programs. Wayne County’s remarkable decrease in state commitments has been accompanied by a compliance rate that exceeds 90 percent while the young people are under care, and a felony reconviction rate of 18 percent for youth released from secure care two years after they return to the community.

In 1991, Ohio was home to four of the 20 most overcrowded juvenile facilities in the nation. In 1994 the state launched RECLAIM Ohio, which carefully incentivizes county innovation. Under the program, if counties safely reduce state juvenile placements in a given year, they earn more money the following year.

When RECLAIM was piloted in 1994, pilot counties quickly reduced state commitments (mostly for low-level felonies) by 42 percent, while commitments from the non-pilot counties actually increased. By 2011, the number of RECLAIM-funded programs initiated statewide topped 600, while the number of youth sent to state facilities dropped by 79 percent.

Since its inception, the training school model, which Mayor Bloomberg called a “relic of a bygone era,” has had disappointing results and been plagued by a never-ending cycle of scandalous abuses followed by cosmetic reforms. But, between 2001 and 2010, there was a 33 percent decline nationally in the number of youth in confinement, with declines in 43 states.  Through the increasing use of more effective risk assessment tools, evidence-informed programs, and creative fiscal incentives, local jurisdictions are creating a fundamentally more balanced approach to juvenile delinquency that may bring the juvenile justice system into modern times and end our reliance on the 19th century training school model.