Paso Robles - At least eight times in the last three years, unruly wards at the state's El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility were marched into the prison gymnasium, placed in handcuffs and make to kneel, sometimes until their legs went numb.
The young men, some of whom were on and off their knees through the day, settled onto thin mattresses at night. But sleep did not come easily. Guards performed "cuff check" on the hour, and some wards who dozed off complained that they were kicked awake.
Throughout the ordeal, some wards threw up or fainted. Others who couldn't hold out for the infrequent bathroom breaks were left to sit in urine-soaked clothing, wards and former staff members said.
On more than one occasion, this "temporary detention," known as "gym TD," lasted three days or more, with wards cuffed around the clock = practice virtually unheard of in prisons elsewhere.
"They don't treat you like wards, they treat you like animals," said Ulises De Latorre, 18, of Buena Park, a veteran of such a session last May. He is serving time for auto theft.
John Scott, a San Francisco attorney who has handled many correctional law cases, reviewed the handcuffing policy and said: "The worst of the worst is adult prisons are in better conditions than this."
Officials at the prison deny they use the gym sessions to punish or abuse prisoners. They said prolonged detention is intended only to separate and control wards for their own safety when violence erupts inside the open barracks that house up to 55 prisoners.
But the practice of "gym TD" is emblematic of a transformation in the California Youth Authority, the agency responsible for some of the state's toughest young criminals. The Youth Authority spends $427 million a year to house 7,563 wards in 11 institutions and four fire-fighting camps.
Question of Control
In recent years, agency's mission to rehabilitate and train wards of the state has been supplnted by a culture of punishment, control, and sometimes brutality, according to dozens of interviews and internal Youth Authority documents.
The state's once-heralded attempts to rehabilitate young offenders, ages 12 to 25, was de-emphasized as then - Governor Pete Wilson and the Legislature focused on punishment.
Hundreds of sexual predators, drug addicts and mentally ill inmates routinely go without prescribed therapy. Hundreds more, including suicidal inmates, are locked in cells 23 hours a day. Teen-age wards often serve more time than their adult counterparts for similar crimes. And access to education, a traditional ticket out of the criminal world, is not assured.
Founded 58 years ago with high hopes and paternalistic ambitions, the Youth Authority prided itself on its compassion, and its ability to turn wayward young people into productive citizens.
Wards took field trips to the movies and the beach. But in recent years, the authority's facilities have become the lockups of last resort for young criminals - raising important questions for taxpayers and the state's political leaders.
Should violent young criminals still be treated differently from their adult counterparts? Can the Youth Authority do more to rehabilitate its young charges with the $38,200 a year it spends per ward - 82 percent more than adult prisons spend?
In March, California voters will have an opportunity to decide whether to get even tougher on juvenile criminals. Proposition 21, sponsored by Wilson, would make it easier to try defendants as young as 14 as adults. The measure could send even more youths to already over-crowded prisons and Youth Authority facilities.
A crisis atmosphere inside the Youth Authority was heightened when Gregorio S. Zermeno, Governor Gray Davis' handpicked director, was forced to resign Dec. 22. He offered no explanation for his departure and has declined to comment on the conditions at the youth prisons.
Pattern of Brutality
Pressure to overhaul the Youth Authority has been mounting for months:
* A state inspector general, appointed early this year by Davis, uncovered a pattern of brutality at the state's largest youth prison, in Chino,. A Davis administration official cited accounts of wards there being handcuffed and slammed into walls, forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication, shot point-blank with potentially lethal riot guns and set up to fight gang rivals. As a result, Davis ordered an end to those practices and an overhaul of regulations on the use of force though out the system.
* The Youth Law Center, one of the few independent groups that monitor the agency, has said wards, including mentally ill inmates at a youth prison near Stockton, have languished in solitary confinement for months on end. As a result, center officials said in a letter, they "will be angrier and even less able to function successfully when they are released from custody."
* The chief probation officer of San Luis Obispo County, John Lum, announced that abuse in the authority's institutions has become so rampant he asks juvenile judges not to ship any more wards to those facilities. "In many cases we are making them worse," said Lum, "which is a real threat to the public safety.
* Earlier this fall, Zermeno issued a memo declaring a policy of zero tolerance for abuse of prisoners and said he was moving to clean up brutal practices uncovered by the inspector general's office at the youth prison near Chino.
In one case this year, the youth agency has shown a willingness to punish instances of excessive force: Five guards were fired for allegedly beating up several prisoners in their cells at the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility in Whittier.
Sean Walsh, who served as Wilson's press secretary, said there may have been occasional instances of mistreatment reported to headquarters. But he added: "It didn't come back to us that there was a system-wide problem with abuse of wards."
Officials of the prison guard union, which represents many youth authority employees, say officers need more tools to control violent youths. They have protested Davis administration restrictions on the use of riot control weapons.
It was nearly 60 years ago that reformers began to view separate correctional facilities for juveniles as the solution to youthful crime.
Activist decried the inhumanity of placing teen-agers and young men alongside hardened criminals in California's adult prisons. So in 1941, California Youth Authority ward No. 1 was freed from San Quentin Prison, where he had been sent for killing a cruel uncle in Monterey County.
That ward was Barney Lee, 14, and his case attracted nationwide attention that led to the teen-ager's eventual transfer to a new training school in Whittier.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the authority built facilities capable of housing hundreds of young men and women. Currently, only about 330 of the wards are female.
Under the traditional juvenile justice notion of 'parens patriae', the state assumed the role of parent in wayward juveniles' lives. Wards lived in open barracks called "cottages" and were supervised by counselors in civilian clothes.
Forty percent of today's wards continue to live in those open dorms with quaint names like "San Simeon Cottage." But most have left petty theft and innocence far behind. Nearly two-thirds of the prisoners are committed for violent crimes, such as rape, murder and assault, compared with the 47 percent who were violent offenders just a decade ago. About 44 percent who were violent offenders just a decade ago. About 44 percent require special handling for some mental dysfunction. Gang affiliation and racial animus are rampant.
At the same time, the state's political leaders have focused on punishment over rehabilitation. The population of adult prisons during the 1980s nearly tripled. Today, 33 adult lockups hold 161,000 prisoners.
Juvenile offenders are met with the same tough stance. In October, a bill signed by Davis required that 16-year-old repeat criminals be charged as adults for violent crimes. Wilson's Proposition 21 would bring the juvenile justice evolution full circle by making it easier to prosecute 14-year-olds as adults.
Administrators inside the fences of Youth Authority prisons have already drawn a harder line.
Prisoners are allowed to post little or nothing on their walls. Relatives can no longer send magazines or books into some institutions because officials fear contraband will be smuggled in. Weight-lifting equipment has been restricted, as it has at all adult prisons.
Nearly 2,000 wards are waiting to get into drug rehabilitation programs; nearly 700 more can't find beds in programs for severe psychological disability or sexual deviance. Between being restricted to their cells for bad behavior and other factors, only about half of the 1,300 wards at Chino attend classes, records show.
At some of the facilities, wards who are deemed too dangerous for regular classrooms are placed in cages, called "secure program areas," before teachers approach them.
In 1997, the agency dropped the "Youth Training School" name attached to many of its facilities and switched to "Correctional Facility." A title then - Director Francisco Alarcon considered more accurate.
Wards typically have their sentences extended by the Youthful Offender Parole Board if they misbehave or fail to complete programs. The result of these "time adds" is that youthful offenders spend more time incarcerated than their adult counterparts for almost every crime, except murder, the agency's records show.
Many long time employees say correctional officers, schooled more like police in their five-week training course, now set the tone inside institutions that used to be dominated by social workers.
"People who had a responsibility for custody in CYA were put in uniform and a more military type of atmosphere was developed," said Allen Bree, a Youth Authority director in the 1970s and a nationally recognized corrections expert. "People no longer saw the primary mission as treatment."