Closing DJJ and replacing it with a souped-up juvenile hall isn’t the answer

Santa Clara County youth need care that formerly detained youth can best design

Editor's Note:

Our families and folks across California worked hard to close the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Now as Santa Clara County begins to plan for this major shift, the care of our youth must be led by formerly incarcerated youth who can tell us what they needed but didn’t get in DJJ.

By July 1, 2021, the Department of Juvenile Justice (formerly known as CYA - California Youth Authority) will stop the intake of young people into these state prisons. The ‘care’ of these youth who are charged with the more serious offenses comes back into the local counties - meaning our county of Santa Clara will have to create a plan to figure out what to do with young people. From the point of a view of a young person who’s been through CYA, who’s grown up to be a father who has a son currently inside juvenile hall and caught within this political football of what happens to young people in the juvenile justice system, I welcome this change - and my experiences need to help shape what our county does to care for young people who were in that situation like myself.  It is in caring for these young people that we keep our communities safe.

I was first sent to the California Youth Authority in 1997 and automatically upon my arrival to NRCC (Northern Reception Center Clinic) in Sacramento l could feel the environment was very different. From ages 13 to 16, I had already experienced incarceration and had been in every unit in Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall and two boys Ranch facilities numerous times. When I got to CYA, the first youth l came across there did not look like a youth at all. He was physically built with tattoos all over his body and looked like a man. The only reason l identified him as an inmate was because he was wearing exactly what I was wearing. It turned out he was 25 years old and was housed in the violation dorm. This meant this was not his first time in such a youth prison. 

I was only 16 years old, and I knew l had to be as tough as possible in this place if l was to survive because l was going to be placed with older, stronger and more experienced inmates in this place they called CYA. With all the stories passed along by our peers coupled with a young imagination, I sat in my cell mentally preparing myself for the next level. One that would bring me a higher acceptance amongst my peers. I was nervous, scared, and proud at the same time.

I want to point out that a lot of us youth sit in these situations alone away from family with no immediate support. This is when we begin to act on our own in order to cope and adapt to our situation. Some fall victim and others create them. All the “Staff” ignored us and the “Counselors”  did nothing to counsel anyone.

When the Staff gave me my CYA number I was extremely nervous and wrote it down on the web of  my sweaty hands. The staff made sure to emphasize this number was important and if you can not memorize it you will be looked at as a “New Booty.” No one wanted to be looked at as such because we all wanted to fit in and the sound of that term sounded sexual. A young mind can run a long race with a term such as “New Booty.”

My last name was now my first name and I was known as a number. I memorized my CYA number on the first night. This took away my individuality, now that l look back at it. At this tender age we are very vulnerable and are looking for something to automatically identify ourselves with, we cling to anything that will accept us how we are and what we think we are. And this for me and other youth were gangs. My past quickly became my future, and I realized I was becoming exactly what I thought at the time l really wanted to be, and that was an adult prison gang member. I later actually did achieve such at the age of 22. 

From a young age l was a follower like many of us are. The only thing separating positive from negative was that the Gangs saw this need before the so-called “Staff” did and l can honestly say they did show me love, at least what I thought love was. The Gangs understood us and nurtured us the best way they knew how. I never experienced such love. Like many of the other young boys in CYA, I was looking for guidance, and needed something that would embrace me and make me feel comfortable. I was not afraid of things I should be afraid of like getting into fights or being inside a field where gun towers surrounded me. Even the guards were ok with us fighting, and they’d set it up. 

I was afraid of things that were very simple -- phone calls to my family or visits from them. I became unattached and uncomfortable around them. I didn’t know how to talk to them or what to talk to them about. CYA was set up to accommodate a young prisoner destined to CDC, not to build them up or to show them how to adapt to the world outside of CYA. This was a training ground to eventually graduate to prison. The locked doors where we slept and stayed in made me dream about being in other places, to look for the light under the door.  But it also trained me to adapt to the cell where I was at, to think that incarceration was my destiny. 

This is why closing DJJ and replacing it with some kind of souped-up juvenile hall isn’t the answer.  It’s not about the 4 walls of the building. It’s about the 4 walls in the mind. For me, what I needed at that time was a process to slowly understand what freedom meant. I know that now because as an adult, even after I was released from jail in 2017 and ended up in Salvation Army where I was taught how to pace my steps to freedom, I needed people who had been in the same position I was at - who saw that same darkness and found that light -- to tell me it was possible, to identify the feelings I was feeling, to guide me so I wouldn’t overdose on freedom. l was willing to accept guidance from other individuals who have had similar struggles as myself who have turned their lives around. They were the peer support that gave me hope, a new outlook on my situation and provided me with the confidence to establish myself as a positive member of society. They had a strong understanding of what hardships l was facing at the time and were able to talk me through things step by step. Much of it was basic but very essential to my freedom and growth as an individual. They walked me through the process of probation, how to interact with my probation officer, attaining my ID, how to look for work, how to utilize community resources such as drug programs and social services – all first steps to build the foundation that l now stand on today. At times those who get released need the guidance in the area of basic resources to get to the next step of their lives. This is best understood by those who have actually been through it themselves and who have made their way out of such successfully. It takes knowing that experience - not from reading books or completing a program in Criminal Justice Studies - it takes experience like I have that I pulled myself from and learned how to become responsible. 

Santa Clara County has a big responsibility right now to try to handle youth who are charged and convicted of these serious offenses, and what we can do with them. We can replicate a CYA here in our own backyard that will do nothing to teach youth. We can make juvenile hall ‘lighter’ and roomier. But we’re in a different era that recognizes young people can be changed, can be redeemed. We don’t have to start with building four walls. And the imagination process has to be led by people like me - who have experienced incarceration as a result of our actions and our traumas - so my son and others like him can have a chance.