CYA goes to reform school

The results have been appalling: high recidivism rates, astronomical costs, and lawsuits over the mistreatment of teenagers. But a gentler approach, perfected in a Midwestern state, soon may take over in California.

Shariffe Vaughn expected to spend about 18 months in the California Youth Authority but ended up serving more than three harrowing years.

Shariffe Vaughn expected to spend about 18 months in the California Youth Authority but ended up serving more than three harrowing years.

Photo By Stephen James

When violence broke out between two angry young men, and immediately the canisters of Mace hissed on the floor, Shariffe Vaughn knew he was a world away from the safety of his Del Paso Heights home. He had spent only two days at the Preston Youth Correctional Facility in Ione, and already a fight had broken out. The 17-year-old former Grant High School student had become a ward of the state, and his new home was a cramped dormitory building that held about 80 other youths, two to a bunk. And then a chemical fog engulfed the dorm. While gas-masked guards attempted to isolate the combatants, Vaughn covered his face with a towel and hunkered down on the floor next to his bunk.

When a fight broke out, the rules mandated that wards had to stay on their bunks, or they would be considered part of the altercation and subject to the harsh punishment that Vaughn would learn is a key component of life behind the California Youth Authority (CYA) bars.

Other young prisoners attempted to get to fresh air through small spaces in the bar-covered windows. But getting to a window required leaving the bed, and that was a rule violation. “That’s when staff grabs them and starts hitting them,” explained Vaughn.

The gas is designed by the manufacturer to be used outdoors to break up riots, but guards in the CYA routinely misused the chemicals in dorms, cells and other enclosed spaces, according to several state-government reports. Because the chemical agents absorb the oxygen in the surrounding space, there is a real danger that inmates could asphyxiate when the gas is used indoors, warned one report. Vaughn agreed that it is indeed hard to breathe in a dorm full of chemical fog. “It burns your eyes, you can’t see, you can’t breathe, and you’ve got snot and boogers coming out of your nose,” he said. In addition, any exposed skin has an intense burning sensation. In some cases, skin will later peel off as a result of the chemical exposure, especially when youths are not given timely access to showers after being sprayed.

Over the three-and-a-half years that Vaughn was in CYA, he estimates that he was gassed about 20 times. On several occasions, he said, he was gassed as punishment while locked in a cell, even though CYA regulations prohibit the use of chemicals for punishment or retaliation. Vaughn also noticed that guards who were exposed to gas were allowed to go home, with pay. “They do it on purpose sometimes so they can go home. That’s what I believe,” he said.

Vaughn was sent to CYA for reform and rehabilitation by Sacramento County for his role in a local burglary committed with two other teens. Any reform or rehabilitation he received in CYA was mostly inadvertent. He initially was told he would serve about 18 months, provided he stayed out of trouble and completed courses in parenting, anger management, victim awareness, and drug and alcohol education. However, well before the 18 months passed, Vaughn was given numerous extensions to his sentence, known as time add-ons, for various rule violations, including fighting.

Vaughn claims that most of his rule violations and time add-ons were unjustified, and CYA’s own studies admit that the system is rife with arbitrary and paradoxical disciplinary procedures. For example, time add-ons are given for failure to complete classes, yet wards confined to lockup units are unable to attend classes.

As a result, Vaughn’s sentence eventually was maxed out, meaning he would not be released until he turned 21. Because he was shuttled between four different CYA facilities and was held locked in a cell for 23 hours a day for much of his sentence, he never attended any rehabilitative courses or classes. The soft-spoken, bespectacled Vaughn points out that, because he is physically imposing, at 6 foot 5 inches and 230 pounds, and had the close support of his family throughout his stay in CYA, things could have been a lot worse. More than once he watched as more-vulnerable prisoners were beaten, Maced and held in solitary cells. He witnessed medication being forced on one ward held in a suicide cell across from his own cell. “They went in there, five or six staff, grabbed him, beat the crap out of him, then tied his arms down and put a needle in him,” he said.

The callous approach has been a tradition in California for decades. The results have been appalling: high recidivism rates, astronomical costs, and lawsuits over the mistreatment of inmates.

But a kinder and gentler approach, perfected in a Midwestern state, is reforming the old harsh and penal approach to reform school and soon may be adopted in California.

Mentally ill teenager Edward Brown was a CYA ward for whom things were considerably worse than they were for Vaughn. Brown was locked in a dungeon-like basement isolation cell for 23 hours a day in the Tamarack Lodge at Preston in 2001, according to a lawsuit filed by several Bay Area law firms and the San Quentin-based Prison Law Office on behalf of Brown’s aunt, Margaret Farrell.

The walls of the cell were splattered with dried blood and feces from prior occupants, and the toilet didn’t function for days at a time. Brown was fed “blender meals” through a straw threaded through his cell door. The indiscriminate mush—a daily food ration mixed in a blender—was served to problem prisoners held in lockup isolation cells. He also was given psychotropic medication by force and coercion—and without the consent of a parent or guardian as required by state law.

But the lawsuit was about more than just one young man. The Farrell case was structured so that it would apply to virtually every ward—male and female—in the system. In unsettling, graphic detail, the 40-page legal complaint described the abhorrent conditions in CYA, including several that parrot Vaughn’s experiences.

Last month, California Youth Authority Director Walter Allen met with Shariffe Vaughn; his mother, Caron (above); and his son, Lucas .

Photo By Stephen James

“Wards have had their heads slammed against walls and rails and have been beaten and burned by tear gas canisters and Maced for no reason. … Staff often use chemical agents on wards who either do not require restraining or who are already restrained. … Wards are simply locked in their rooms for weeks or months with no programming and no constructive release for their frustration, tension and fear. … In addition to their failure to prevent ward-on-ward violence, CYA staff have actually encouraged, permitted and/or provided wards with the opportunity to fight each other,” says the suit. Clearly, the allegations showed inhumane treatment for California teenagers.

The lawsuit also alleged, “Rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are common within the CYA. Some wards are housed in the same living facility as others who have previously raped or sexually assaulted them.” Referring to many studies done by the state over several years, the complaint gives vivid examples of excessive-force incidents, inadequate medical and mental-health care, and unconstitutional conditions of confinement. From the time the case was filed in January 2003, the Gray Davis administration spent taxpayer money to fight it.

But at a press conference last month, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Walter Allen, the man he appointed to run CYA just more than a year ago, unexpectedly announced that they were settling the Farrell litigation. The case was not brought for money damages, but for a court declaration that the entire system was in violation of various state laws that require CYA to provide rehabilitation, training and treatment to youthful offenders. The action also sought a court injunction prohibiting CYA from continuing to spend taxpayer funds while operating in an illegal and unconstitutional manner.

The ramifications of the settlement are hard to exaggerate. The state is now bound by a 22-page agreement that lays out in minute detail the massive number of reforms that CYA must implement, all under the watchful eye of a court-appointed monitor and an Alameda County Superior Court judge. The court supervision of CYA will continue until the system comes into compliance with state law and the terms of the settlement agreement, a process expected to take years.

Allen diplomatically credited his bosses—Schwarzenegger and Youth and Adult Correctional Agency director Rod Hickman—with approving resolution of the Farrell case. “I don’t want to knock past administrations, but this administration has open arms to those people that want to help us. The Prison Law Office entered the settlement agreement because they want to help us,” he said.

After reading the court complaint, it is difficult to believe that the California juvenile justice system once was a national model. Created by the Youth Corrections Act of 1941, CYA was considered revolutionary because it substituted training and treatment for youthful offenders in place of retributive punishment, which had been the national norm. By the mid-1960s, the California training and treatment model was so successful that it was adopted across the country and became the national legal standard in a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case, Kent v. United States.

But almost 40 years later, CYA is considered one of the worst and most punitive systems in the country. In order to change, the state will look east to one of the least punitive, most innovational programs.

The current national model is recognized as the Missouri Division of Youth Services. Thirty-five years ago, Missouri’s was one of the worst systems in the country and had problems similar to those plaguing California’s system today. It has made a remarkable turnaround.

Under the current Missouri program, wards, who are referred to as “kids,” live in small units in one of 32 residential facilities around the state. To encourage family visits, kids are assigned to a facility as close to home as possible. There are no guards, no cells and no Mace. The kids and the staff wear street clothes and jewelry, sleep in regular beds with their own comforters, and live in housing units that have artwork on the walls and vases with flowers. The environment is treatment-oriented 24 hours a day.

By almost any benchmark, the Missouri model stands virtually alone. The state spends about $43,000 a year per child, while a CYA ward costs taxpayers about $72,000 per year. Recidivism rates also reflect a sharp contrast. About 34 percent of Missouri offenders return to the adult or juvenile criminal-justice systems with new offenses, while California’s rate is as high as 74 percent.

CYA is considered so far gone by some legislators and youth-advocacy organizations that there have been calls to close the entire system down and start over with a new model using smaller facilities that mirror the Missouri system. Several counties, including San Francisco, are considering moratoriums on sending their young offenders into CYA.

Part of the Farrell settlement requires CYA to evaluate programs in other states and develop plans to reduce the number of wards held in solitary-confinement conditions, among other things. Allen and an entourage of California state officials have made several trips to Missouri to study its system to see if some or all of it can be used in CYA. Allen returned from his most recent trip just two weeks ago.

To learn more about the Missouri model, SN&R asked the architect of the national standard, Director Mark Steward, how he did it. “It’s not rocket science. You take a kid, and you beat the hell out of ’em, and that makes them worse. You take a kid and try to heal ’em, help ’em, talk to ’em, give some good suggestions and advice, put them in an environment with other kids where they’re helping each other, and you’re going to get a lot better result,” he said.

But understanding the origin and nuts-and-bolts details of how his system became the envy of state officials throughout the country exposes issues and potential conflicts with the powerful guard union here that may make applying the model in California nearly impossible.

CYA Director Walter Allen meets with Shariffe Vaughn and his mother and son.

Photo By Stephen James

To replicate the Missouri miracle, CYA may indeed need to be metaphorically burned to the ground and rebuilt from the ashes.

Steward said his life was upended by a group of teenage juvenile delinquents 35 years ago. He recently had graduated from college with a degree in marketing management, and originally had intended to pursue an occupation in the private sector. “I was going to go out and become rich,” he said in his mild Midwestern drawl. But during his final semester, he took a course in sociology. The subject changed the direction of his career, and instead of joining corporate America, he took an entry-level job in the Missouri juvenile justice system.

At that time, the Missouri system was much like the California system is today. “We had a very violent system, with murder, mayhem, violence and suicides,” he said. Wards were kept in cells at a single facility known as the Boonville Training School. The “school” had a long history of staff-on-ward abuse dating back to its inception in 1887. Because of the horrible treatment, the public and the Legislature were demanding changes. Some called for the training school to be shut down and for a new system to be built from the ground up.

The state proposed a small, low-budget pilot program at a different site using old trailers that had been abandoned by a federal Job Corps program. Fresh out of college, Steward was assigned to the new 75-bed facility located in a rural area.

The entrenched administrators and staff at the training school were not enthusiastic about the new program, and to ensure it would have a slim chance of success, they selected the most incorrigible teenagers to send over.

“A lot of these kids they sent had been locked up in cells for 23 hours a day. They had been hurting other kids and were the most violent. They had mental-health issues and behavioral problems,” Steward said. They also had the longest rap sheets. “My God, one 17-year-old kid from the inner city had 69 court referrals,” he recalled.

He observed that most kids left the system worse than when they came in. Steward helped set up a new system that relied on a group-interaction process and personal development instead of punishment and isolation. The new approach, which included housing kids in small living units in groups of 10 or 12, instead of cells, gradually worked. The program was incrementally duplicated at other new facilities throughout the state. The notorious Boonville Training School was shut down in 1983 and now serves as an adult prison. Seventeen years ago, Steward was appointed director of the state’s juvenile justice system, known as the Division of Youth Services.

To make it all work, Steward had to rebuild from scratch, beginning with the staff and the overall culture. Some staff members were willing to get on board with the new philosophy, and some weren’t. “As we progressed, we found out that if you didn’t really like working with kids, then you didn’t fit in out there, and that became the culture,” Steward said. Compliance with the pro-rehabilitation and pro-treatment ethic was mandatory. “If you don’t believe in that, then don’t let the doorknob hit you as you leave. The kids know, and the staff know: If you come in here, and you’re a jerk on some kind of a power trip and want to just knock heads, you better go someplace else, real quickly.”

Another employee requirement is a college education. “Before, you didn’t even have to be a high-school graduate to work as a guard at the facilities. Now, they’re called youth specialists, and they’re college-degreed,” he said. Weeding out undereducated and uncooperative guards was relatively easy. Reorganized less than three years ago, the Missouri prison-guards union is politically impotent.

But this foundational aspect of the Missouri system may prove difficult to import to California. A December 2003 CYA study noted that when the previous director, Jerry Harper, attempted to remove wards with mental-health issues from the draconian lockup units and attempted to close down lockup units in the worst physical condition, CYA guards, who are also members of the politically powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), protested. “All these efforts have met with opposition from some CCPOA members who accuse the Director of coddling offenders and somehow endangering their membership,” said the study.

Allen will have to convince guards accustomed to using force, gas and lockup isolation units to control wards that the new model, not inaccurately perceived by some as coddling, will succeed. “If they don’t buy in, to be frank with you, we’re not really going to be successful in moving forward,” Allen conceded.

It is not hard to picture how most CYA frontline staff would respond to a juvenile system in which wards are housed in a home-like environment and the wards wear their own clothes and jewelry, as they do in Missouri.

And Steward just laughs when asked if the staff there uses chemical weapons. “We don’t know what that is. We don’t have batons or pepper spray or anything like that,” he said.

Another key to the Missouri program is the deliberate structure of each group of kids. In each group of 10 or 12, three or four are getting ready to go home. “They’re on their final leg, so they’re in the status of leaders, teachers and positive role models,” Steward explained. Another third are in the middle phase of the program, “so they’re over the hump, and they’re getting it together.” The remainder is basically at orientation phase, “where they’re really figuring out what’s going on.” The critical ratio in each group, combined with intensive staff supervision, keeps the system on track. “Otherwise, because most of them are gang kids, if you were to throw together 10 or 12 kids and say, ‘Help each other,’ you’d have another gang going,” he said.

Missouri Division of Youth Services Director Mark Steward, center, spent 35 years developing a “therapeutic” juvenile-offender treatment program, now considered the national model.

Courtesy Of Mark Steward

Some groups even will include conflicting gang members who were enemies on the street. Whenever a new teenager enters the system and is assigned to a group, the process begins with a recitation of the rules by peers. “They explain to the new kid that there’s no violence in these facilities; we don’t allow hurting behavior; the staff are there to help you; the kids are there to help you; and all your gang stuff and violence, leave at the door.”

Most of the time, the new member will be skeptical. “The kid will usually look at them and say, ‘Yeah, right,’” Steward explained. At that point, the group will take over with introductions and supportive small talk, and eventually the newcomer will let his or her guard down. “When you’ve got 10 other kids your age, your size, and you may recognize one or two from the streets, and they’re in a positive mode, it’s amazing. Nine out of 10 new kids will say, ‘Well, OK. I’ll give it a shot.’ And that’s the first step in the process,” he said.

Steward explained that they are able to take hard-core gang members, usually from the inner cities of St. Louis or Kansas City, into the program and enlist their cooperation by offering the same benefits that gangs offer on the streets. “What we do is use the same gang principles and concepts as you do within gangs, such as support for each other, but you turn it positive. Then it’s very, very closely monitored, guided and structured by the staff,” he said. Staff supervision is intense; at least two staff members are with each group of kids, 24 hours a day. “We have what we call eyes-on supervision, where you never let the kids out of your sight, because if you don’t have a safe environment, you can’t get a good treatment environment.” The constant supervision and high staff-to-ward ratio virtually has eliminated other problems, such as inmate suicides. Missouri has an average of one staff person for each eight youths, while California has a ratio as high as 1-to-25. Missouri’s system hasn’t had a suicide in 35 years, while California’s has had seven in the last five years, along with hundreds of attempts.

During a typical day, each group will attend school, eat meals together, exercise and do an evening “check-in session,” where the kids all describe how their day went. There are also counseling sessions, and pullout groups for kids who have special needs, such as drug, alcohol and sex-offender treatment.

Because of the success of his program, Steward is often contacted by officials in other states for advice. Some will describe how their current system operates, and a common method is the hard-nosed boot-camp approach. “I’ve had some states tell me, ‘Well, by God, we’re going to make it so tough that they’ll never want to come back,’” he said. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. You cannot even come close to replicating the crap these kids have come through. You might as well give up on them if you’re going to try and make it so hard they won’t come back. Most of these kids don’t get three square meals a day [at home].’” Steward is convinced by 35 years of experience that because most of the kids who end up in the juvenile justice system have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused either at home or on the streets, attempting rehabilitation using harsh conditions is counterproductive if not entirely worthless. “You treat a kid like an animal or a true lowlife, then that’s what you’re going to get,” he said.

But the tough approach is common, including in California. A recent CYA report that included ward interviews detailed verbal and mental abuse of CYA youths that would be unheard of in Missouri. CYA staff routinely would berate the wards, using expletives and coarse language, conveying that the inmate was worthless and incapable of rehabilitation, according to the report. Some guards would yell directly into the face of an inmate, attempting to provoke a physical response that would result in punishment. The staff did not deny the accusations and rationalized that the in-your-face approach “can motivate wards to improve themselves.”

Steward lowered the cost of delivering juvenile-offender treatment and rehabilitation services by simply eliminating all guards and most administrative staff—a concept likely to be bitterly resisted in California. “We don’t have tower guards, roaming guards, and guards supervising other guards. We don’t have different levels of supervisors, lieutenants and captains and all of that—that’s just layers and layers of bureaucracy,” he said. A typical facility of about 40 kids has a manager, an assistant manager and several team leaders who each supervise 10 counselors, who work directly with the kids. “Once you get the kids to stop running off, and quit beating each other up, you can actually spend the money a little wiser,” he said.

Steward believes his program can be exported to California and that it wouldn’t take as long to be up and running, since Missouri already has worked out the kinks. “Part of the stuff can be done damn near overnight,” he said. He was impressed when he met Allen, and he believes the CYA director sincerely wants to reform the California system. “I think he’s a dedicated, committed guy and really wants to make the changes, and I think he’ll work as hard as he can to do it,” he said. Allen is bringing Steward to California early next year.

Allen’s vision is to gradually transform CYA into a true Missouri-style therapeutic and counseling environment, and he believes he can do it by re-educating the existing bureaucracy and guard staff. Even CCPOA President Mike Jimenez is “on board,” according to Allen. Allen explained that those employees resistant to the new model will be encouraged to move on. “If they don’t like communicating with the young people, and they don’t like helping us counsel them, then they’re going to have to look at [the California Department of Corrections] or some other occupation, because they’re going to be very uncomfortable in this environment,” he said.

There are indications that some frontline staff may be uncomfortable already. An unofficial prison-guard Web site and blog, at, includes a bulletin board where anonymous CYA staff have expressed strong misgivings about the changes and outright derision toward Allen and state Senator Gloria Romero, who also helped spearhead many CYA reforms.

Shariffe Vaughn came home from CYA in September, one day before his 21st birthday. Because he served his full sentence within the system, he was not subject to a parole supervision period on the outside. That meant he was not eligible for CYA parolee assistance, such as counseling, parenting education and employment help. This final failure of the system to provide him some semblance of reform and rehabilitation infuriated Vaughn’s mother, Caron. Throughout her son’s stay in CYA, Caron was a thorn in the side of CYA bureaucrats, including the former director, Jerry Harper. She collaborated with other ward parents and advocacy organizations, and she has become an activist for CYA reform.

Caron said she has noticed a change in attitude at the agency since Allen has taken over. For example, Allen agreed with her that the policy that denies inmates aftercare services when they’ve maxed out their sentences is misguided, because these wards may be the most in need of help on the outside. Last month, the mother and son met with Allen at his Sacramento office, where Allen seemed sincerely interested in Shariffe’s impressions of life within the system, and the former ward came away from the meeting with a positive impression of Allen. Allen promised Caron that he would arrange for her son to receive post-release support if he wanted it.

Meanwhile, Shariffe has found a job through his own initiative.

After being turned down by department stores because of his criminal history, he was hired by a roofing company to do door-to-door solicitations for $8 an hour plus commission. He already is making more in commissions than in salary and is talking about saving or investing. Mostly disinterested in any after-the-fact help from the CYA, he spends his free time bowling with friends or hanging out at Arden Fair Mall.

“I’m never going back now,” he said.