SACRAMENTO - The California Youth Authority, heavily criticized by national experts for its treatment of young offenders, will no longer confine troublemakers 23 hours a day in bare cells for months at a time.
New director Walter Allen III said the authority will end the practice, in which youths typically spent 60 to 90 days in 6-by-8-foot segregation cells.
"As of today, it's over," he told senators as he was being grilled during a confirmation hearing. He said he will require that youths be released from their segregation cells "a lot more than one hour a day."
"We are going to change our way of doing business," Allen said. "We're going to change the conditions of confinement."
Committee members unanimously voted Wednesday to recommend the Senate confirm Allen as director of the authority, which manages 4,300 youths in 11 prisons and camps.
Criticism of the authority peaked in January after two teenagers segregated at an Ione facility hanged themselves while confined to their cell for all but an hour a day.
The cells contain only a toilet, a sink and a concrete bunk. Youths in segregation are allowed out only in handcuffs, and only to shower, change shorts and meet briefly with a teacher or counselor.
Though the youths are supposed to be segregated a maximum 90 days, state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, said one youth she visited at a Chino facility last week had been confined for 200 days in a cell illuminated by a "strange, depressing blue light that shines continuously, all day and all night."
The practice "defies rehabilitation," Romero said.
Said Senate leader John Burton, D-San Francisco, "You treat somebody like an animal, they're going to come out like an animal. Shame on us for letting this stuff happen" under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit firm that has sued the state over treatment of youths, praised the decision but wondered what comes next.
"You have to have some plan to deal with inmates creating problems," Specter told the Los Angeles Times. "The question is, will their approach be punitive or therapeutic?"
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