Sacramento -- An 18-year-old ward hanged himself in a Stockton juvenile prison cell last summer after spending eight weeks in solitary confinement -- a practice prison officials had promised to halt.
In a damning report released Thursday, state inspector general's investigators detail the grim two years Joseph Daniel Maldonado spent behind bars -- from his unanswered pleas for psychiatric help to guards taking 38 minutes to enter his cell after they sensed trouble on the August night he was found hanging from a bunk bed.
The lockdown at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility came despite a statement made by the head of the state's troubled juvenile justice system in 2004 to end the practice of banishing wards to their cells. The report said that Maldonado, along with many other wards, spent eight weeks confined to his cell, and that he and the other wards were only allowed out three times a week for showers.
The report prompted one lawmaker and several youth advocates to charge that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's prison reforms have been hollow rhetoric.
"The state is liable for the death of this ward,'' charged state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, characterizing the weeks-long lockdown as abominable.
A spokesman for Schwarzenegger's prisons department said lengthy lockdowns were no longer used as punishment, but were sometimes necessary to maintain order.
The inspector general's report is yet another black eye for the state's juvenile prisons.
Experts who have studied the prisons have declared them the most violent in the nation, and there have been six suicides at juvenile jails in the last five years.
Chaderjian, which garnered national headlines last year when guards were captured on film kicking and punching wards, is the home of the worst of the worst juvenile offenders. Romero and many juvenile justice experts have demanded that Schwarzenegger close Chaderjian, but he has so far refused.
The inspector general's report outlines Maldonado's history and offers a portrait of Chaderjian as a violent lockup where gang leaders seem to have more clout than the guards.
A convicted car thief and gang member, Maldonado asked for mental health help four times in 2004 without getting it when he was imprisoned in an Amador County jail, before being transferred to Chaderjian. He told one caseworker that the lockdown at Chaderjian that preceded his death had left him feeling claustrophobic and agitated. His father was murdered when he was 7, and his mother was a longtime drug addict, according to the report.
Guards violated multiple policies leading up to Maldonado's death, including taking 38 minutes to open his cell after first sensing trouble, investigators concluded.
Maldonado, who was from Sacramento, was found Aug. 31 hanging from the upper bunk of his cell with a bedsheet tied around his neck. His name has not been released by state officials but has been confirmed by the Oakland group Books Not Bars.
Response to the report was swift and blunt.
"This is the first report that directly links their practices with a death,'' said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a public interest group involved in a lawsuit against the state over conditions in the juvenile prisons.
Schwarzenegger had settled the lawsuit in 2004 and pledged to make significant changes, but his administration has missed several court-imposed deadlines to implement reforms, including policies regarding suicide prevention, according to Specter.
The governor's top juvenile prison administrator called Maldonado's death a tragedy and said the department is still investigating the incident to determine if employees should be disciplined. Bernard Warner said he has made several changes at Chaderjian, including reducing the size of the population, that have reduced violence there.
"This report is an indictment of the violent and tense conditions that existed at the facility,'' Warner said, but noted that assaults on wards and staff have dropped significantly in the past few months.
The report portrays Maldonado in two lights, as both a troublemaker and a troubled kid: As a member of a Latino gang, he was involved in 15 fights with other wards.
But he never assaulted the guards, and he was described by a gang information coordinator as a follower, not a leader. Just 5 feet, 5 inches tall, and weighing 120 pounds, "he faced violent retribution by the gang leadership'' if he attempted to leave his gang, the report notes.
Maldonado and his entire gang were locked down in July during a particularly violent period at Chaderjian, when five assaults on guards were recorded.
During the lockdown, the wards were allowed showers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays but were given no time to attend school, exercise or interact with mental health professionals.
"The effects of this eight-week isolation and service deprivation may have contributed to the ward's suicide,'' the report concludes.
Romero said she felt betrayed by Schwarzenegger administration officials, who had pledged to end lockdowns in youth prisons. Walter Allen, who was director of the California Youth Authority before its name was changed this summer, told the state Senate in 2004 that the kind of lockdown used at Chaderjian would no longer be used.
But on Thursday, J.P. Tremblay, a spokesman for the state's prisons, said Allen meant that officials wouldn't use lockdowns as a punishment against unruly wards.
"The intent of the lockdown is to restrain a population for a short period of time to gain control,'' he said.
Tremblay acknowledged that a weeks-long lockdown was "not something we would normally condone.''
The report notes that prison employees "failed several times to properly assess and act on the ward's mental health needs.'' Not only were his requests to see a mental health professional unmet, but an assessment of Maldonado when he first arrived in the system, noting that he had alcohol and anger issues, was lost from his file.
The report also details the length of time it took Chaderjian's staff to get into Maldonado's cell after discovering he had blocked the window so that no one could see inside. A guard first noted the covered window at 6:15 p.m. but waited 15 minutes to report it to a superior, and it took another 23 minutes before guards opened the cell to find Maldonado's body.
The report acknowledged guards were concerned about wards attacking them from their cells, but said policies were broken regarding the immediate reporting of problems in cells.
Tremblay said the prisons department issued a directive to all employees after Maldonado's death insisting on quicker responses.
E-mail Mark Martin at email@example.com.