A local mom tries protecting a son serving time in one of the state’s harshest prisons
Maria Ortiz is furious and she won’t be silenced any longer.
The mother of Roberto, a 20-year-old now serving the fifth year of a seven-year sentence at the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, had recently told SN&R (“What About Roberto?” SN&R News, May 10) that she feared for her son’s safety if she spoke out about conditions at the prison. As a result, she asked that her name, and her son’s name, be changed to protect him from possible abuses at the prison arising from her contact with the media.
“Today, I don’t care,” said Ortiz, who initially requested that SN&R protect her son’s identity by referring to her only by her middle and maiden name. The mother’s real name is Cecilia Hendon. “It seems that the only way to get answers down there is to get the media on them. Someone has to know what’s going on.”
What’s going on, according to Hendon and her son, is a playing out of the same abuses documented in a February report of the inspector general, which found, among other things, that the Stark facility is particularly harsh and “still keeps large numbers of wards isolated for all but two hours a day” in their cells. Non-communication with family members, misplacing of medical records and other required documentation, physical abuse by staff—Hendon’s claiming these and other abuses took place at various times between May and the present.
A juvenile when he first entered the state’s correction system, Roberto’s full name is Javier Roberto Ruiz-Garcia. His California Youth Authority ID number is 89251. Roberto received six years for stealing $180 worth of items from the friend’s open garage and another year and four months for shooting out car windows with a BB gun several weeks after the burglary.
Following an initial confirmation that Roberto was indeed housed at Stark, prison Superintendent Ramon Martinez refused, despite repeated attempts, to answer any further questions for this article.
As Hendon tells it, a guard accused Roberto of smuggling a dumbbell into his cell on May 29—a charge Roberto disputed. According to Roberto, as a result of his refusal to confess to an offense he did not commit, he was handcuffed and placed in lockdown. It was during this time, Roberto told his mother, that a guard broke Roberto’s right hand while her son was being handcuffed.
Roberto also alleges that during the initial days of the lockdown, he was kept in his cell 72 hours at a time, not permitted showers and often forced to miss breakfast and lunch, which should have been delivered to his cell. He also claims he was denied the ability to file a grievance against the guards allegedly responsible for the abuses.
“The lockdown stories are a constant complaint from parents and are documented public record,” said Sumayyah Waheed, policy director for Books Not Bars, a youth-rights advocacy organization trying to shut down the CYA. “And we’re constantly hearing about guards messing with kids and accusing them of things that aren’t true.”
Hendon has yet to receive a straight answer, she said, about any of it, including why Roberto is still on restriction. One reason: She was told her son’s release-of-information form was missing from his file. Although that situation has been rectified, Hendon still finds herself getting the runaround, she says.
Officials alternately have told Hendon they don’t have Roberto’s medical records, and that he had tendonitis and that is why he has a cast on his right hand. They tell her he’s on restriction because he’s gotten into fights, yet Roberto says he’s not being allowed out of his cell.
“And I see the marks on him when I visit, and that’s different than what they’re saying,” she said.
A local Spanish-language station has picked up on Hendon’s story and she’s working the phone for all she’s worth, calling a growing list of people and organizations she hopes to recruit to her cause, which she says is twofold.
“I want an independent doctor to evaluate my son,” she said. “Take an X-ray of his right hand and tell me how that hand was broken and what damage was done. I want to know what happened May 29.”
To that end, Hendon filed a complaint with internal affairs at the Department of Juvenile Justice (formerly known as the California Youth Authority), against both the prison and its staff, on June 22.
“We’re reviewing the case at this time, but we cannot comment on investigatory or personnel matters,” said George Kostyrko, DJJ spokesman, adding that, procedurally, the case would go through an inquiry stage before internal affairs decided whether it warranted an investigation.
Asked whether it was policy to place officers accused of physical abuses on administrative leave during an investigation, Kostyrko said, “In general, at any point in time when DJJ management believes that allegations against staff are so egregious, management has the option at a minimum of changing the assignment and not working with a certain ward, to putting staff on paid administrative leave.” When a complaint is filed against a peace officer, the hiring authority must complete its investigation within a year, Kostyrko added.
Perhaps just as important, Hendon is beginning to believe, is the need to transfer Roberto to another prison to serve the remainder of his time—hopefully one closer to home.
“They say you can’t control the guards,” she said. “So if they have it out for him, I want him transferred, because it’s not safe there for him. The officials down there are saying I’m calling everyone to set up a lawsuit, but I don’t want money. I want my son to be safe. I worry every night about what’s happening to him.”
Books Not Bars’ Waheed called prison officials on Hendon’s behalf after a scheduled visit was denied for questionable reasons. Hendon had been told June 22 that her June 23 visit would be canceled because Roberto was “under medical supervision” after allegedly saying he wanted to hurt himself.
After discussing the issue with Martinez, however, Waheed was told the denial was a “mix-up” and that Roberto would be allowed to visit his mother. Additionally, he was allowed to see Hendon for three hours, rather than the one hour normally allotted to prisoners on lockdown.
What’s particularly appalling to Waheed about Roberto’s case is that it comes on the heels of a public rally Books Not Bars held at the Stark facility June 16, at which Hendon was present and spoke candidly to members of the press about the need to protect the rights of youth at the prison. “Here she is, clearly connected with us, and we’re advocating family and youth rights, and then this stuff happens to her,” Waheed said. “It’s a slap in the face.