Keep Pushing for Change: Reflections on Chad and O.H. Close Youth FacilitiesPosted by Lauren McVay on July 20th, 2010
Editor's note: This is the first blog in a four-part series written by our staff who visited N.A. Chaderjian (Chad) and O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facilities with the Youth Law Center last month. Each piece reflects their personal experiences at the youth facilities, which are undergoing reorganization as required by a court agreement and the California State Legislature after widespread criticisms of conditions at California youth prisons. Also read this reflection by a youth in the facility by our CJNY member group Beat Within.
When first presented with the opportunity to tour the N.A. Chaderjian (Chad) and O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facilities in Stockton, California I had my reservations. I’d heard the reports about the terrible conditions at facilities as well as seen the headlines of suicides and dog attacks that had taken place there over the past several years. But it was these same reservations that motivated me to seize the opportunity and see firsthand what is really happening at these facilities.
Upon driving up to the facilities, they looked well maintained. The driveway was nicely paved, the lawns manicured, and the buildings cleanly painted. If the guards and fences were removed, the facilities could have been mistaken for regular commercial buildings in any city. Maybe things weren’t as bad I had first thought – or were these looks meant to be deceiving?
The tour at O.H. Close began with a discussion session where the tour group met with three wards to hear about their experiences. My expectations had led me to believe that any youth we meet would be rough around the edges, as most people assume about youth in the system. But my assumptions soon faded as they spoke. The first young man was a 19-year-old African American who had become a father at the age of 15. He looked the group straight in the eyes as he spoke of his experiences at O.H. Close and the help he was receiving. The second young man was an 18-year-old Caucasian who was fidgety and a little shy who kept looking down at the ground. He seemed to be trying hard to make a good impression. The third young man was a 17-year-old Latino who did not say much but was eager and more than willing to speak his mind when asked.
All three of these young men reminded me of someone who could have been a student at my high school. How had these youth gotten to this point? I wondered. All three of them agreed – under the watchful eye of several staff members – that the services and treatment they were receiving while at O.H. Close was not something that had been available in their communities. They admitted that had it been available to them, at the time they were arrested, they probably would not have taken advantage of it. They attributed this to the influence their friends, who most are no longer in contact with, had over them when they were on the “outside.”
The three youth expressed concerns over the implications of getting out and avoiding negative influences. They had high hopes that the change they were undergoing at the facility would provide them the necessary tools to be productive members of society upon release. After their prepared presentation, I found myself wondering, maybe since the lawsuit brought against it, this facility has undergone the reforms needed to rehabilitate rather than just punish youth?
As the tour at O.H. Close continued, we viewed Humboldt Hall, one of the units. The boys were in a group counseling session. Again, the boys who spoke all seemed like they could have been my classmates. The living facilities in Humboldt Hall were almost camp-like, with one large room with dingy metal cots lining the walls. The mattresses and blankets were thin, worn and reminded me of something army-issued. The clothing is provided to the youth used, and they can do their own laundry down the hall.
Off to the side were several smaller, dark cell-like rooms that could be “earned” by boys who had the highest rankings based upon schoolwork and behavior. It was at this point that it became clear that the only boys chosen to speak to us were the Level A wards. These were the wards with the private rooms. They were not the ones forced to sleep on a thin cot, in the middle of an open room, with no space to store their personal items other than a locker. A locker that most turned backward so that the door could not be opened and their possessions could not be stolen.
These boys were incarcerated and with that came everything that condition entails in our current justice system. They have no rights, no privileges, and no sense of accountability other than an arbitrary level system that dictates the very few things they can and cannot do. Of course the boys with the Level A ranking are going to rave about the facility because they are being treated differently than their fellow wards. Being a Level A ward could be compared to being famous on the outside; those wards are treated like they’re special, like they’re better than other wards.
Next on the tour was the Chad facility. This tour began with a low-budget video depicting the different activities the wards participated in during their time at Chad. The video was made up of photographs of the youth set to the song “We Are the World.” It was difficult to watch. The wards were shown having a Super Bowl party, a Halloween party, sweeping their units, and making their beds – among other normal day-to-day tasks. It seemed a ridiculous attempt to demonstrate to us that the youth are leading a normal life while incarcerated. After the video, we toured the vocational programs and met several young men who were involved in the computer program.
The computer program was actually called “Merit Corporation.” Eight to nine wards work on breaking down computers and other electronics that are then sold on eBay. These wards, who were Merit Corporation employees, receive $8 an hour. It is an elite opportunity available only those youth who have obtained an A or B Level ranking. I inquired about how much the other vocational programs pay the youth and every other program pays between $1.50 to 25 cents an hour. Just as at O.H. Close, the youths who best conform to and accept the system are given the privileges.
As the tour continued, we visited the housing units. Unlike the units at O.H. Close, these units are two story buildings with private cells lining the walls. These units are prisons, and are eerily similar to what adult prisons look like. One of the staff offered to open one of the rooms so that we could see inside. As the staffer was doing this, I noticed a youth watching us very intently. I was not the only one who noticed. The staffer replied, “Oh don’t worry, it’s just his room.” Just as he endures on a daily basis, a group of strangers touring the facility violated his right to privacy. Because of whatever mistakes they made in life, these youth were viewed as inmates more than as youth.
From what I read in articles and reports about the way O.H. Close and Chad used to operate, it was clear that a lot has changed in recent years. I believed the staff – who were mostly new, hired in the past several years – we met genuinely care and are trying to improve these youth’s lives during the time they spend at the correctional facilities. However, one ward divulged that while most staff care, there are still some there only working “for a paycheck.”
While changes have been made and the facilities are improved, I would not go as far as to say they are of quality. Just because there is a sign of improvement is not a reason to step back and stop pushing for more change: Pressure for more changes inside the facilities and pressure for changes in communities to prevent youth from being incarcerated in the first place. I left believing even more strongly that youth incarceration is a multifaceted problem that needs to be approached from many different directions to effect real and genuine change.
We need to keep pushing for more changes.