Anthony takes a break from his construction job to talk to me. He is 25, white, with an anomalous background, a graduate of UC Berkeley and the California Department of Juvenile Justice (formerly the California Youth Authority system). From Berkeley he received a degree in Anthropology with a minor in global poverty alleviation. From the DJJ he accrued a set of distressing experiences and a first-person understanding of how California treats youthful offenders.

Anthony comes from a relatively well-to-do family in Corona, California, a bedroom community for commuters to Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. In high school he started getting in trouble and was arrested and released several times for graffiti, being under the influence, and having an illegal bonfire in the hills. In 2004, when he was 17, Anthony crashed a car while driving drunk, killing one of his passengers. He was sentenced to 32 months in the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). What follows is our conversation on his experiences and why he feels that the DJJ does more harm than help for the majority of its wards….

DJJ's Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, Camarillo, CA. Image by Richard Ross for Juvenile-in-Justice.
DJJ’s Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, Camarillo, CA. Image by Richard Ross for Juvenile-in-Justice.

Juvenile In Justice: Tell me about your time in the DJJ:

 Anthony: In total, I was at three facilities: Norwalk (Southern Youth Correctional Reception Center in Norwalk, California, now closed), Dewitt (Dewitt Nelson Youth Correctional Facility, now closed) and Chad (Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility). Chad was an emotionally disturbed hall, which was more geared towards rehabilitation than the others. I think I ended up here because of a fight I got into at Dewitt. At CYA there are hardly any white people. Across the board white people don’t get as harsh of sentences, a truth which becomes painfully obvious on the inside. I was one out of two white people on a hall of 100 boys. I aligned with the Mexicans, southsiders. I was never in a gang. There was so much violence and fighting. CYA had/has this reputation for being worse than the adult prisons. The mythos was that there was more murder at state, but less constant fighting. At CYA there was perpetual fighting. There were no murders while I was there, but a few stabbings. I remember once in the cell below me, a kid that was supposedly on suicide watch killed himself. I remember watching them carry his body out.

[supertagline] “A kid that was supposedly on suicide watch killed himself. I remember watching them carry his body out.” [/supertagline]

JinJ: Were you scared?

A: You don’t know the “rules” or the right behaviors. You are constantly being manipulated by kids with nothing better to do. Yeah, I was scared. You had to fight to protect yourself from rape and sexual assault.

JinJ: How does that happen? Where are the corrections officers?

A: How does it happen? You get propositioned, it starts as a joke… but it’s not really. The M.O of the corrections officers is basically: ‘you fight, we’ll [pepper] spray you, lock you up and let you out tomorrow.’ And that would be lucky. Some kids, if you get on an officer’s bad side, they would put you in isolation for days. You fight, and they put you in isolation for three days.”

JinJ: During the time of your stay at Chad (Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility)  the facility came under scrutiny for, amongst other things, its excessive use of isolation as a punishment. Can you tell me more about that and your time there?

DJJ Facility. Image courtesy of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
DJJ Facility. Image courtesy of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

A: Chad… At the beginning of my time there we were on twenty-three-and-ones, for several months. That means 23 hours in your cell and 1 hour out. You would be let out at 6am and have time to take a shower and maybe play some dominoes. After a time, the facility started getting major flack and negative attention for the confinement practices. [Governor] Schwarzenegger visited at one point and more or less condemned the place. But after that there were riots, especially among the super-organized Norteños. There were 20 attacks on staff, one in particular was super severe. They staged a fight in one part of the facility to distract the staff and then locked a female staff member in the cafeteria and beat her. I think she was in a coma. After that, they locked down the entire place. For a month and a half I only left my cell every three days for a shower. It was horrible. But they kept the Mexican kids on lockdown for months and months, until they would “debrief” which basically means telling all, who is affiliated with the gang, etc. But definitely not all these kids were in gangs. They didn’t stop until one kid committed suicide.

JinJ: You mentioned something earlier about your minimum and maximum age for release. I’m unfamiliar with this, can you elaborate?

A: Within the CYA, when I was there, there is a minimum and maximum age for release, the minimum was 18 and the max was 25. I met so many kids who had been there [at the facility] for years, some since they were 14, for what was originally a six-month sentence. What happens is you can keep getting six months or a year added to your original sentence for things like fighting, even getting caught masturbating. These kids with small original sentences basically have to fight to stay safe, to keep from being raped to protect yourself. So you fight, and they add a year here, a year there, until you max out at age 25.

[supertagline]  “Kids with small original sentences basically have to fight to stay safe, to keep from being raped to protect yourself.” [/supertagline]

JinJ: What about kids being sentenced as adults? Did you see that increase or decrease during your time?

A: During my time there I saw an increase in kids being sentenced as adults. More M-numbers—booking numbers that started with a ‘M’ denoted kids who were going to adult prison when they turned 25. We had a lot of those.

JinJ: Tell me about the education system in the facilities.

[supertagline] “It’s impossible to learn.”[/supertagline]

A: I had such a tremendous advantage over the other wards. I already had my high school diploma when I entered DJJ. A lot of kids couldn’t read or write, which made things impossible for them. Inside it’s almost impossible to get a G.E.D. The classes, if they exist, are disorganized at best. At worst, they’re violent. Fights break out constantly. A lot of the time the staff will just throw you a book, and you’re lucky if you get it. It’s impossible to learn.


and join us next week for a conversation with attorney and expert Jennifer Kim, a senior policy analyst with the Ella Baker Center’s Books not Bars campaign, on the current status of the DJJ.

4 thoughts on “A Conversation with a Former Ward of the CA DJJ…

  1. you cannot lock up a person and hope the problem goes away! I am so glad this “time-add” policy has been overturned.
    On top of all the in-justice of the story it also saddens me to hear Anthony is still working construction after studying global poverty alleviation at Berkely.

  2. I remember i was there. If your were a good fighter sometimes the staff as you would call them, would get you out to fight. Even if the guy was a lot bigger than you, you had to stay on your own. when I was in CYA, they were lost of stabbing mostly becasue they wanted to head down south closer to thier family.

  3. I remember that shit hole…race wars, gang bang’n, only the strong survive is the name of the game. the type of place that can make a person real cold…I grew up in these places, preston, chad, yts. 11years. 6 of those in the hole, not straight but long periods…I had my issues I suppose…yeah, these places fucked me up. how do I know?? I feel fucked up when I’m around normal people, out of place, and pretending all the damn time. The shit I had to relearn and try to learn…how to feel, how to respond, how to think, how to interact, how to play with others, how to laugh at myself…all this shit!!…and at the same time try not to crack a mathafuckah’s head open because they just don’t know how hard I’m trying to be a good man. I thank God and my children for my drive to be better man. these places breed failure.

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