Not through my backyard

Already plagued by juvenile escapees, a conservation camp’s neighbors fear the arrival of 110 adult male felons

Washington Ridge neighbor David Wills says attempted escapes—or “walkaways,” as the California Youth Authority calls them—have become routine.

Washington Ridge neighbor David Wills says attempted escapes—or “walkaways,” as the California Youth Authority calls them—have become routine.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Longtime Nevada County resident Will Lindsay said officials at the Washington Ridge Youth Conservation Camp had assured him more than once that none of the juvenile offenders housed there had been convicted of murder. However, one night, he received a call from a female guard, telling him that there had been an escape and that under no circumstances was he to open the door if his dog was barking. Two days later, Lindsay said, he found out the escapee was a convicted murderer.

Lindsay and other neighbors of the 80-acre camp, located eight miles north of Nevada City, have lost faith that government officials are telling them the truth. On January 13, they were informed that the camp soon would be transformed from a juvenile facility into a minimum-security institution for adult male felons as part of the governor’s budgetary plans for the Department of Corrections.

Dozens of citizens, concerned about having what they consider to be a prison in their growing neighborhood and recreational area, showed up for last week’s meeting of the county board of supervisors, where they were told the matter was a done deal.

Officials from the California Youth Authority (CYA), the California Department of Corrections (CDC) and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) gave a joint presentation, hoping to allay residents’ fears about public safety at the facility, which has no security fence and no armed guards and will have one to three officers at any time supervising 110 prisoners.

Opened in 1961 as a camp for juvenile offenders to learn job skills and to contribute to the community through public service and work on fire crews, the camp has been under-populated in recent years and currently houses only 37 wards.

CYA has a contractual obligation with CDF to provide 100 wards per camp to staff five fire crews. In order to work on these crews, CYA wards must be at least 18 years old and no older than 25. Because of the shortage of qualified wards, CYA already has closed five camps statewide and will be closing two more this year: Washington Ridge and Ben Lomond, in Santa Cruz County.

“We’re running out of wards,” said Pam Erskine, CYA program manager. Ten years ago there were 10,500 statewide. Now there are 3,400. According to Erskine, the declining number of offenders is due to a drop in juvenile crime and to counties either incarcerating their own or sentencing kids as young as 16 to adult facilities.

In order to have more wards available, CYA began lowering its admittance criteria and including more potentially dangerous offenders.

“We no longer wish to alter criteria to get people into camp,” Erskine said. “We don’t care to take any more risk.”

Local residents did not know exactly how much risk CYA officials were taking. Until the January 13 meeting, they had believed the camp housed no violent offenders. Had they known the nature of the crimes for which these young men were incarcerated, the escapees, or “walkaways” as CYA calls them, would have seemed even more frightening. “There’s escapes all the time,” said David Wills, a camp neighbor since 1989. “The catch rate is 100 percent, but it may take months to catch them.”

When Wills was building his house, he said, “two guys were walking away from the camp,” right toward him. When they saw Wills, they ran and hid behind bushes and then ran back to the camp. Wills called the guard on duty and was told these two were “just looking for baseballs out there,” although it was nowhere near the baseball diamond. The officer just denied there had been an escape attempt, Wills said.

A few years ago, Wills said, a number of wards stole a teacher’s car from the camp lot and made it to Los Angeles before they were apprehended.

Another time, Wills was in his backyard when he noticed sheriffs hiding behind trees, watching the camp. The camp has a chain-link fence only on one side, Wills said. “Anybody can walk in and out of that place.” And people do walk there and ride horses and mountain bikes on that trail.

When Wills asked the officers what they were doing, he was told that friends of the wards had been using that spot as a “drop-off site.”

“Who knows how many times [this has happened] when I wasn’t around,” he said.

Another neighbor, Lorraine Bently, has owned a vacation house since 1981. Last summer, “one kid accosted an officer and escaped through a window and went right through my property,” Bently said. The ward “was in bad shape,” bleeding profusely. “He was whimpering like a child.” Bently was in her backyard, far away from her house and without her cell phone. Fortunately, two officers were soon in pursuit. They called an ambulance. “I got cloths to stop the bleeding. It could have been a dangerous situation,” she said.

Numerous times, Bently has seen helicopters searching for stray wards, and she also saw an officer hiding in the woods one day while she jogged along a road. “He told me, ‘Don’t be frightened.’ He was looking for runaways.”

Regarding CDC’s plan for housing 110 adult male felons, Bently stated, “It’s not safe.” In response, Camp Superintendent Stephen Gardner, a 28-year veteran of the department, said, “Nothing was up here” when construction began in 1958. “We built the road” that allowed people to buy neighboring property inexpensively. “It’s almost like people building houses on an airport runway and complaining about the noise.”

Gardner said the camp has been “a very good neighbor for Nevada City.” Not only have wards fought fires, but they also have done community-service work and participated in search-and-rescue missions.

Gardner and his staff are saddened that the youth program is coming to an end. “It’s a wonderful environment compared to a lockdown,” he said. He understands the anger residents feel for not being included in the decision, but he chalks it up to “a decision made in the governor’s office.”

However, Gardner appreciates the necessity of staffing enough fire crews to protect an area of extreme fire danger. In recent years, Washington Ridge has had only two crews, instead of its required five, each consisting of 14 to 17 wards supervised by a CDF fire captain.

Work crews are “a good bargain for taxpayers,” Gardner said. Inmates are paid $1.45 a day for eight hours of community-service work and $1 an hour for firefighting.

Neighboring residents don’t dispute the need for adequate fire crews, but they point out other options. Connie Anderson, retired dean of academic affairs for California community colleges, noted that 82 community colleges have firefighter academies. For an intensive five- to six-month training program, students pay fees of up to $1,300.

“Yuba College has a residential program. Students pay to stay in dormitories,” she said. State certification for Firefighter 1 requires six months’ paid work or one year’s volunteer service, she said. The conservation camp could provide a useful opportunity for students to fulfill their volunteer requirements.

“We live on the camp’s border,” Anderson said. “With one staff person for 110 felons at night … I’m going to be fearful.”

CDF has explored “an exhaustive review of alternatives,” replied Tony Clarabut, unit CDF chief for Nevada, Yuba and Placer counties. “People don’t work for free anymore.” Clarabut thinks that adult prisoners work harder than volunteers, and he perceives adult inmates as less of a threat to the community than the youth wards.

Once the camp is converted to an adult facility, quotas required by the CDF contract will be met easily because there will be a pool of 165,000 inmates statewide in the CDC system from which to select camp residents. For that reason, the criteria for selection will be more rigorous. Therefore, CDC officials maintain that inmates will be of a much higher quality than the wards.

Currently, to qualify for admittance to one of the 40 statewide CDC camps, an inmate must not have committed any of numerous violent offenses, including murder, rape, kidnapping, sexual assault, and arson with great bodily injury—crimes that youth wards now populating CYA camps may have committed.

However, certain crimes—such as assault with a deadly weapon, arson without great bodily injury, burglary without a firearm, robbery, carjacking and involuntary manslaughter—are not considered automatic grounds for exclusion.

CDC inmates eligible for camp are typically drug offenders or property criminals. After they are evaluated through a points system by a CDC committee and selected for camp duty, they receive physical-fitness and firefighting training. The average inmate stays in camp for eight months and must have superior performance evaluations to remain.

Some Washington Ridge neighbors are concerned about the selection criteria and wonder why a conviction for arson would not immediately contraindicate service on a fire crew. After finding out they had been living next-door to violent youth offenders, they wondered if the CDC criteria for inmates might be loosened someday, also. California statutes do not require public notification prior to changes to CDC facilities, as neighbors discovered on January 13.

However, not all local residents are alarmed by the forthcoming change in the inmate population. Joe Wiley, a Nevada County resident since 1969, used to work for the CYA and lives on “one of the routes escapees usually take.”

Wiley said an escapee once slept in his car, and he advises residents not to leave car keys handy. “Escapees are heading for home and are not interested in local neighborhoods,” he said. Wiley said he would be more comfortable having adults at the camp instead of juveniles.

Other residents who have worked for CDF and CDC agreed. They said that older inmates who have experienced lockdown facilities consider the conservation camps a privilege, because the inmates receive a two-day sentence reduction for every day they work. In addition, older inmates historically have lower escape rates than CYA wards.

According to CYA statistics, 22 wards have escaped from the Washington Ridge facility from 1999 to 2004, and that number makes some locals nervous, considering the CDC’s plan to house more than three times as many adults at the camp.

Disgruntled neighbors don’t argue about the benefit of having inmates available for firefighting and forest fuel reduction—the contribution of 4,200 CDC inmates statewide, providing more than 10 million hours of work per year—and they acknowledge the opportunity for troubled individuals to turn their lives around through community service. Nevertheless, they’re dismayed that they had no opportunity to be part of the decision, and they worry that once again they will be misled about the true costs and risks of living next-door to criminals.