Inside Juvenile Hall
Thursday, May 18, 2000
On one side of a long, dark hallway lie the sleeping quarters, separated according to gender and degree of offense. On the other side is a common area where clusters of teenage boys play games and talk in hushed voices. In the corner of one hall, isolated by law from the other inmates, is a small group of Prop. 21ers seated at a table playing dominos. If you look closely, you might recognize one or two of them from local crime coverage.
Juvenile Hall is a busy place. Designed as a temporary detention center to house youth while they await sentencing, the facility scrambles to assess new arrivals and discharge the ones whose trials have come and gone to the California Youth Authority, the Monterey County Youth Center, or to group homes. The hall used to hold kids for no longer than 90 days, but these days the time spent in Juvenile Hall can last up to a year and a half. It's the job of the staff here to make the best of that time.
"We get lots of kids who have just lost all hope and come from horrendous family situations," says Mike Uppman, lead teacher at the Wellington Smith School located inside Juvenile Hall. The staff's challenge is to get to know the kids fast--a task frustrated by a lack of school records--and to set up educational plans and establish personal ties that will most benefit the youngsters no matter what their next stop will be.
"What we've got is 15 of most teachers' worst nightmares," says teacher Greg Ludwa, "but we develop close relationships with the kids and they like being in school here. They don't see a future for themselves, so we try to expose them to positive experiences, talk to them about college. It doesn't take much to see a big change in their lives."
Keeping peace and discipline in the hall is key. "When you have kids coming in at age 11 or 12," says Supervising Probation Officer Ken Tutt, "the hall is no longer a deterrent, they just adapt to it."
High gang membership also poses problems. While staff maintain a commitment to integrate youth from different gangs together in the classroom, the reality is that rivalries can lead to violence even inside the hall.
Despite the obvious strains of hall life--ranging from typical teenage romance dramas to emotional breakdowns--school director Paula Mitchell says the youngsters appreciate the structure they receive, and many aren't anxious to leave. "They get their basic needs met," she says. "Some of them face abusive situations outside, and it can be dangerous out there."
During our visit to Juvenile Hall, we had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with three juvenile offenders. What follows are three different perspectives from the center of the youth violence controversy.