American Abu Ghraib

The headlines coming out of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo can make one embarrassed to be a citizen of the United States—this country is responsible for inhumane treatment, torture and humiliation.

But what really sickens me is the knowledge that this type of treatment, plus beatings, goes on in this country against teenage boys and girls, and they’re technically not even in prisons.

Here in the blue state of California, where many think our approach is enlightened and progressive, it is surprising that perhaps one of the worst youth correctional systems in the country exists. For the past 20 years, the California Youth Authority (CYA) has been on a downhill slide, with the evidence contained in videos on CNN that show brutal assaults by a dozen guards at a Stockton facility. Young wards also are burned by tear gas and are Maced for no reason and are locked in their rooms for weeks or months with no programming (see “CYA goes to reform school”).

But one of the most progressive juvenile justice systems, one that is light-years ahead of California, comes from a mostly conservative red state: Missouri. At one point in its recent history, Rush Limbaugh’s cousin was on that state’s advisory board, and he was appointed by then-Governor John Ashcroft. Missouri’s system of housing young men and women in cottages and providing close guidance and rehabilitation has the support of both conservatives and liberals. That’s because it is fiscally conservative, with low recidivism rates, and is socially responsible, because it doesn’t use force and coercion to get results.

The new director of CYA has traveled to Missouri three times recently and is expected to revamp the system here in the image of that state’s innovative programs, but we can expect that the all-powerful guards union in California may stand in the way. It may be best to start with a new approach, buildings and employees.