Players in the fight to shut down — or keep open — the last of California’s state-run youth prisons are meeting this week where the action is: Gov. Jerry Brown’s Department of Finance, where the nitty-gritty of state budgeting gets done.
Struggling with the costs of incarceration generally, California could become the first state to wipe out is state juvenile jail division and the last of three prisons in a highly discredited system.
Sources said “stakeholders” on both sides of the proposal were invited to a meeting today, Thursday, to discuss Brown’s proposal to phase out three prisons housing about 1,100 wards at more than $200,000 a year each.
On one side, pushing for closure, are many, but not all, juvenile-justice reform advocates who have long attacked the state system as a scandal-prone failure.
On the other side: influential groups such as the Chief Probation Officers of California and the California District Attorneys Association. They argue that not all California counties are ready to take these higher-level offenders despite prior funding shifted to counties — and offers of more — to increase their ability to do that.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the prison guards’ union, is also against total closure. It represents one of the nation’s largest law-enforcement employee groups. Last year, legislators in California voted to require that counties pay the state $125,000 per ward, starting now, if revenues to the state didn’t improve. They didn’t, but collection is on hold — for now.
In the meantime, advocates for transferring these youth to cheaper, local county custody have a petition drive going to protest conditions at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility. That prison and the other two detention centers are already under federal mandate to improve treatment of wards. The facilities are also physically decaying and would cost millions the state doesn’t have to upgrade.
Complaints by both a current ward at Ventura and the Ella Baker Human Rights Center in San Francisco include charges of overuse of solitary confinement — a previously documented practice — filthy showers, toilets that overflow and leak and air vents that smell like sewage.
Update: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Bill Sessna called the allegations about Ventura "exaggerated." He said the facility has a new supervisor who is attending to building upgrades, but that current problems "are nothing that threaten the safety and welfare of the youth."
Incarceration expert Barry Krisberg at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law is a monitor of the court ordered-improvements in the three youth prisons. In a January report he shared with the Center for Public Integrity, Krisberg says “budget austerity” is hindering prison improvements — some have been made — but that he’s seen the least progress of all in Ventura.
In fact, some aspects of behavioral treatment have deteriorated recently, he says. Lockdowns have increased substantially, he says, and Ventura was the site of half of 48 cases of staff assaults in the youth system statewide during the first half of 2011.
“There is no question,” Krisberg says, “that Ventura is the facility that is most in need of urgent management attention.”