Going inside Santa Maria Juvenile Hall

[This is the first in a series of upcoming posts on Santa Maria Juvenile Hall] in Santa Maria, California.
 

Santa Maria Juvenile Hall, image by the author for Juvenile-in-Justice.
Santa Maria Juvenile Hall, image by the author for Juvenile-in-Justice.
 
Over the past year I have made two visits to Santa Maria Juvenile Hall, also known as Susan J. Gionfriddo Juvenile Hall in Santa Maria, California. Gaining access to Santa Maria Juvenile Hall has been reasonably typical of the sites I have visited. Take this experience and multiply it by 300 successful attempts and many unsuccessful… it becomes exhausting.

 

October 2011 I visited Steve Delira, deputy director of the juvenile detention center. We spoke for an hour and I voiced my goals to have him partake in a “Justice” themed class I was teaching with Victor Rios and Cissy Ross. He explained the reasons for the closure of the Santa Barbara (South County) juvenile detention center and said he would get back to me regarding access and his participation in the class. Two weeks later I called and was told that he was covering for two positions unfilled in the county probation department and doing the work of three people. Two weeks following, I was told he was on vacation. This went on for more than a year.  Delira exemplified the archetypal strategy “they will grow tired and go away approach.”

 

In the intervening period I was asked to speak at the Santa Barbara County Public Defenders meeting and explain what my research had uncovered around the country. The Public Defender expressed enthusiasm and said he would assist. More time elapsed, more phone calls, more “we will get back to you.”
 
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In January of 2013 I was invited to visit the detention center. My first action was to meet with Judge Garcia who sends these children to detention next door. This followed with meeting with the detention director and his staff for three hours to explain my methodology and goals. Finally, 16 months after my initial meeting with the probation department I met my first child in detention.
 
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Every child I visit represents an investment to get a diverse population to believe I am trying to investigate and explore for the betterment of the world these children live in. To simply get in the door represents untold efforts to explain and convince the critical need for this research. The last link in the chain is the most precious and fragile: when I sit on the floor of the cell and listen to the child.

 

After the initial year-plus of hurdles, I have repeatedly been to Santa Maria and visited with much of their population. If not welcomed, I am tolerated on a monthly basis. As an expansion to this project I am also visiting and interviewing families of these children in Santa Barbara county. Much of the system seems to be bound by procedure rather than the morality of necessary and frequent evaluation and attention to the outcomes for the children. Patterns emerge in the process of discussing, investigating, and exploring the circumstances of these kids and their families. These are families and children with limited economic and educational opportunity. Often they are fragmented and have difficulty coping with external issues imposed on their community. The children and families have little access to resources that can change the course of action that brings them into “the system.”

 

Discussing the anecdotal description of the problems and the attempts to get assistance has been positive to the outcome of these kids and many others.  Based on my work with these local families, the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Barbara and Frank Razo, the director of El Puente (now closing) are endeavoring on new work to form a strategy that can more effectively for assisting these kids.
 
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One child I spoke to at Santa Maria has been held for over three years “propped up” or “wearing orange”—both slang for being held for trial as an adult. I also interviewed his mother and photographed his room at home in Lompoc.  On a recent visiting day his mother brought him a photograph of his room where there are three years of birthday and Christmas presents wrapped and waiting. He is the youngest of a group of children that are accused of a capital offense and has now expressed a willingness to testify against the others. This carries the risk of retaliation by co-defendants but also the possibility that he will not face a 60-year sentence. This is simply one story and a series of photographs that began with a conversation 16 months past. This is a microcosm of what I have reported all over the country. When I become frustrated I remember there are lives at stake and I have the ability to bring image and anecdote to a broader audience… and I can also change an individual life by simply caring enough to sit down and listen to them.
 
[This is the first in a series of upcoming posts on Santa Maria Juvenile Hall] in Santa Maria, California.