DJJ Watch Juvenile Justice: Healing Not Punishment

DJJ Watch: An Insider Tells of Officers Leaving Kids’ Skin to Burn With Pepper Spray & Other Everyday Forms of Violence at CA’s Prisons for Kids

Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, during the release of his revised state budget, Governor Gavin Newsom revealed more of his plan to, as he put it, “end the juvenile justice system as we know it.”  Newsom was referring to his decision to transfer California’s long-troubled Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) from the umbrella of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to the Department of Health and Human Services, effective July 1, 2020.  According to the report below by Alberto “Beto” Gutierrez, the reform the governor calls for is urgently needed now, not later.


Last Friday, May 17, I was sitting inside my social studies classroom, at a northern California Department of Juvenile Justice facility, waiting for correctional officers to bring my nine students for their period 4 class, the first class after lunch. Suddenly, I heard a commotion inside the unit. At first, I thought nothing of the noise until I stepped outside my classroom, and saw two white vans arrive, disgorging two drivers each holding their non-lethal pellet guns.

Once both drivers, security correctional officers (COs) entered the building, more backup officers continued to arrive on foot, some in golf carts, others in another van or two.

My classroom is situated in the facility’s intake unit, where kids stay when they first arrive at the DJJ facility. Intake tends to be more volatile than the other units because kids are nervous and have yet to settle in, thus commotions are common. This fight was three boys on two, but there was the possibility it could escalate.

I was still outside of my classroom when a CO brought the first youth out of the living unit where the fight had occurred, his hands cuffed behind his back.

(It is protocol to handcuff everyone involved in a fight.)

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” the youth said, gasping and clearly distressed, as he walked alongside the officer.

His shirt was covered with the chemical residue left by the aerosolized Oleoresin Capsicum, commonly called OC-spray or pepper spray. It was also on his face, neck, and upper body, but was mostly visible on the white fabric of his t-shirt.

“He was attacked, he’s the victim!” said the guy who was bringing out the obviously suffering kid, as he passed another officer.

I stood and watched for a few seconds before I ran to my classroom to retrieve my water canteen, intending to pour water on the youth’s burning face and into his eyes.

When I returned, I realized I had to ask the correctional counselor for permission to relieve the kid’s suffering, although the question felt awkward and irrational. The DJJ was, after all, committed to helping kids change their lives for the better, not retaliation, punishment, and leaving pepper spray on a kid’s skin and in his lungs for no reason that in any way relates to safety.

The first correctional officer I asked, who was also a supervisor, shook his head no.

I acted as if I didn’t notice him, and redirected my question to another correctional officer who gave me a nod of approval.

I slowly poured water over the youth’s upturned face, but it was difficult to get it right. His legs were wobbly, and he continued to struggle with his breathing, still audibly gasping, “I can’t breathe!”

Close to him, I could smell the chemicals on his body.

Eventually, the youth dropped to a knee and managed to spit out some of the OC spray that was irritating his throat. But he continued to struggle with his breath.

As I slowly poured the rest of the 40 ounces of water, he seemed to gradually cool down a little, as if the burning was lessening.

The medical staff arrived a few minutes later and the youth, still handcuffed, was escorted to a van and eventually transported to the medical unit.

The entire incident, from first seeing the handcuffed, gasping kid, until he left in the van, took no more than ten minutes, maybe less. On many occasions, it’s far worse. I’ve seen youth who have been sprayed sit handcuffed for 20 to 30 minutes, sometimes as long as 40 minutes, before they are taken for decontamination.

To be clear, these were 20 to 30 minutes that occurred well after the youths had been separated, handcuffed, and after any possible threat had passed.

In one case, I saw COs take an OC-sprayed youth and interrogate him for 15 minutes or more, without any decontamination. I remember, the youth was in obvious pain and couldn’t open his eyes at all.

I was new at the time, and afraid of getting in trouble if I tried to help the kid. So I did nothing.

I vowed to never let that happen again.


Echos of the past

When I first began teaching at a state juvenile detention facility in August 2015, I was cautioned/warned/advised by a fellow teacher that time would eventually teach me to not trust or be nice to the wards. When he gave me this advice, he used far more descriptive language. I said nothing in return, but silently disagreed.

Four years into my tenure as a DJJ instructor, I continue to disagree and have come to conclude that to treat the young people in our facility as anything less than kids who belong to all of us, regardless of their crime, is to systematically produce an army of Frankensteins.

I did not have to teach at a detention facility for four years to arrive at this conclusion.

The idea of dismissing the needs of certain youth is extremely troubling for me, as their actions are a reminder of the years in which my needs were dismissed by too many professionals who were paid to prepare me for the future.

I was 17-years-old when I began college. I applied after the college advisor at my high school suggested that I attend a vocational school and learn how to paint cars.

I was also 17-years-old when I decided to permanently walk away from the homies. Five years earlier, what began as a group of junior high school kids walking to and from school together, and playing football at the park, morphed into something else due to pressure from local gangs, routine racial profiling by the Los Angeles Police Department, the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the street wars that ensued and eventually escalated.

At the time, I was a mediocre student but wise enough to understand the end result of the homie lifestyle. I would regularly mentally map out my options, and didn’t care for any of the foreseeable finales.

In that decision to walk away, I also walked away from a support system, my Go To’s in moments of emergencies. Yet, actually, the distance had been steadily growing before I made it official. It grew when the homies dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and I remained, the lone ranger of the original cohort, on a school campus where I regularly saw members of rival factions and dealt with mugging gazes and promised threats.

When I went off to college, I did so with a lot of uncertainty about my future and regularly considered returning to the nest. Even as I stayed away, I remained informed about the escalating wars and their casualties. I vowed to not attend the funerals. I needed a complete separation in order to give my new life a fair chance. But I always knew who had died, and how each death had occurred.

In college, I encountered an unfamiliar model of teacher-student relations. Unlike K-12, where teachers seemed focused on what I came to call drill and kill, in my first college classes, I met a sociology instructor named Pat Allen, who was provocative and the topics of her discussions provided an additional layer of understanding on the crack epidemic and street wars I’d lived through. This deeper understanding, along with the geographic distance from the homies, also initiated a kind of healing process. I came to believe that my decisions would have been different if I’d been exposed to Pat Allen’s work at a younger age, so I decided to become a teacher and to carry her torch.

There were other inspiring instructors, like Dr. Gloria Miranda who taught my Chicano Studies Class, and awakened my interest in pursuing a Ph.D.

After completing my Master’s and Ph.D. at UCLA, I was hired to teach social studies at a state youth prison.

As a social studies teacher, I was there to impart book knowledge, but soon enough I learned that to be able to keep the attention of these traumatized and angry youth, I needed to build relationships on a much deeper level than at any previous teaching assignment.

(While I was getting my Master’s, I worked as a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles County juvenile halls and camps where youth have much shorter sentences than those kids in the state facilities. I also taught social studies at two different Los Angeles Unified High School’s, both of which struggled with gang violence and graduation rates. Just before arriving at DJJ, I taught for several years at Cal State Northridge, while pursuing my Ph.D.)

The first year at DJJ was a trial phase in which the youth repeatedly tested my commitment to their lives. They wanted to know if I was “real,” or just another state employee putting in time, who was encouraged to use write-ups, and punishment to force-feed behavior.

Certainly, I’ve met some very good people during my years teaching at DJJ. But, it seems that too many choose to turn a blind eye to staff misconduct as a means to avoid escalating a confrontation with the powers that be.

Building relationships paid off. In my initial 32 months of teaching in the general population school area, only two fights occurred in my classroom. (In the mornings I taught in the mental health unit. In the afternoon, in general population.)

Looking back, I think that even those two fights might have been prevented, had I been working in a setting that used restorative justice techniques to lower tensions, and to talk through the problems.

In contrast, other teachers had students fighting in their classes on a regular basis.


The need for advocacy and healing

I certainly made mistakes along the way, but the youth appeared to understand that my mistakes were the result of a lack of experience within a confined setting, and plain old human error, but not the result of any intentional malice.

At the beginning of my fourth year of service, after spending three years teaching every morning in the mental health unit without a fight, two months into the semester, two fights broke out in my class within a week.

The experience of back-to-back fights was unsettling— especially when I had a working relationship with the youths who were fighting.

Wondering what had changed, I did a little investigating and found we had a new teacher in our unit, a veteran to the system whose approach to the kids was highly confrontational. She regularly incited the youth. Even when fights didn’t break out in her class, I noticed that students frequently arrived in my 4th-period class unraveled by what occurred two periods earlier.

After the second fight in my class, I emailed the principal about the situation.

There, I was, after all these years, standing up for the homies, but this time within a confined setting that the governor has newly promised will be focused solely on healing and rehabilitation.

To be clear, although I used the word in this essay, I do not refer to my students as homies. Not ever. But do find myself regularly advocating for my students. They don’t need a big homie, they need a mentor, a teacher, a life-guidance counselor, and even at times a friend. And, also, sometimes they need an advocate.

My willingness to speak up is not always welcomed. I am not supposed to “side” with them, some CO’s and educators have suggested to me, in so many words. They are criminals, thugs, not like us.

No. They are our children who have made mistakes. I was once one of them.


Alberto “Beto” Gutierrez, Ph.D. is a teacher, a student of life, and an advocate for all living beings.

His essay is the first of a series that will take us inside California’s Department of Juvenile Justice.

31 Comments

  • To the writer you have a done a great service writing this article, although you may be ostracized by those around you, I commend you for standing up and speaking out.

    For your co-workers to say “their not like us” is appalling. Maybe it’s not your son, your brother, your nephew etc, but that kid belongs to someone and unless someone helps him now, tomorrow may be to late.

    More individuals should start coming forward and letting the truth be told. There is far to much corruption inside the walls and on the streets of America.

    If society only knew how corrupt the justice System is. Shaking my head, Ohhhhhh if the walls Of MCJ could talk.

    Great Post,

  • Couple of things I’ve noticed regarding these guest commenters that witness loves to run.
    1) They really seem to love themselves.
    2) They love to tell their own heroic and selfless stories. (Look how I overcame adversity)
    3) They’re always certain they know better than the people surrounding them ,doing the same job.
    4) I feel sorry for the people who have to work with these narcissistic self serving blow hards.

    • Thank you I totally agree with you. This guy thinks he’s the savior to all of these kids. The crap he spouts is a slap in the face to all of us who have worked with these Youth at very early ages. Doesn’t he realize that there is a population that is just plain dangerous to be in society? It’s sad but it’s true as I have seen many through the years who have absolutely no remorse for the crimes they have committed. Do I treat them bad? Of course not, but I am always on guard because I know that 95% of the time these are not 1st time offenders and they have graduated to being in these facilities.

  • A self serving piece of fiction. Please practice your creative writing in your journal.

    You have provided evidence that you were likely a “mediocre student.” Perhaps you can aspire to be better? This is not a great start.

  • Major Kong, based on your list of observations, it seems you might want to consider being a guest commentator. You fit every factor on the list. You seem to love yourself, or are at least full of yourself. Stories about your heroics abound – in fact, according to you, everyone in law enforcement or the military is a hero, just by signing up. And, who knows more about everything than you. It seems like after every post, you try to impress up with your intellectual acumen on the subject, from the point of view of cowboy with badge, of course. Please share your wisdom and write something. I can’t wait.

    Gordon, those are pretty harsh words -“a mediocre student.” I would venture to say that a masters and a doctorate from a top rated university is fairly impressive. Please show us what a great student you were. How many degrees do you have? And, graduating from the police academy does not count. That may show you were slightly above average in physical condition, but after about 10-15 years on the job, midway to the pension, especially if you are on motorcycle duty, you now doubt have the stereotypical belly. But, please enlighten us with your academic accomplishments. No doubt it stings when someone with a Spanish surname may have accomplished more than you or your kids, probably took like Chad’s place in the PhD program. Damn immigrants.

    • Elements of a cf post- begin with a general insult, then go into a narrative that has nothing to do with what the commenter said or what was even written about in the original story. All stories wind up in the same place, an anti cop hysterical screed. Common cf ,why not tell us about the trauma that led you to this sad place.

  • This is a representation of a few, not the many. When cops shoot a person(as they have been doing for years/decades/centuries, the powers that be haven’t removed guns from them. The “bleeding hearts”, and child advocates don’t know what it is to work with reprobates. It’s a tax write off, and in the case of reporters, a chance of noteriety/Pulitzer prize. Pathetic.

  • “They are our children who have made mistakes.”

    Committing a murder, perpetrating an armed robbery, doing a burglary is a “mistake”?

    God help us all if we accept THAT as a new norm.

  • To the writer, extremely proud! We need more voices who are not afraid to speak. Our world is corrupted with lies.

  • If the system does not make the wards experience uncomfortable during their stay, they will not think twice about committing a crime. Usually those who end up in the DJJ system are repeat offenders or those who have committed serious offenses.
    These kids have not made mistakes, their offenses were committed with absolute knowledge of what they were doing. Their mistake was getting caught.

  • This article bothers me in so many ways.
    First off, let us not forget these “homies” are at DJJ because they are criminals. The a**hole that molested my three year old niece only received juvenile life – which for him means 3 years. She will never be able to have a child herself and suffers horrible emotional and behavioral scars, but I am supposed to care that this monster might be sprayed with pepper spray after getting in a group riot? Guess what? Don’t commit a crime!!!
    This writer who is the biggest narcissist I’ve heard since turning on FOX and listening to Trump spent more time speaking of himself. The victims in your story, are at home suffering from the crimes committed by these juveniles. We have had our homes shot at, our children killed and our neighborhoods terrorized by these delinquents. They are exactly where they belong.

  • Cognistator, there is no new norm. If there is, it is that we’ve come a long way, we know more about the cognitive development of a child/person, the effect of trauma and the impact of poverty, the effects of incarceration and solitary confinement. For god’s sake, a few years ago we were sending people to prison for marijuana, which is now legal. And, add to that that crime is down. So, the sky is not falling.

    Madame Kong, come on. That’s like the pot calling the kettle black. Although you would probably use a different word for black.

    • CF:

      “…There is no new norm.”

      Not yet.

      But clearly, there is an advocacy for a new norm in what constitutes a “mistake”–any felony committed by a person below the Age of Majority–and God help us all if that advocacy comes to realization.

  • Sadly, Mr. Gutierrez continues to self- promote as he is quite known to do misconstruing and, at times, lying while exploiting our kids at CHAD rather than be the professional that he should be and speak the truth. He is not the superhero advocate that he claims. Far from it!

  • CF; You are absolutely correct about the increased understanding of the juvenile cognitive development and adverse effects of certain treatment.

    But once again we swing the pendulum all the way to the other side by almost completely freeing them of accountability. Part of cognitive development is teaching them that their actions have consequences.

    Hell, we’re even doing it to our adult offenders. Drugs is a debatable issue but Grand Theft Person is Grand Theft Person no matter what the value of the stolen property is.

    I know I’ve strayed a bit, but just because we decriminalize a ton of crimes doesn’t mean we have a lower crime rate. People need to held accountable regardless of their age.

  • Proposition 47, and other so called criminal justice reforms were really about saving the state money and lowering the states prison population. This led to the state lowering its costs and shifting the responsibility to local jurisdictions. The state then colluded with and allowed for liberal groups, supported by state politicians and liberal courts to then latch on and put forth studies and tales demonizing the states prison/jail system, it’s workers and it’s policies.

    What a grand scheme. In essence, the state government used propaganda to change the views and opinions of the masses to support their end game agenda. In a way, it’s similar to the opioid crisis, which utilized university researches to conduct studies funded by pharmaceutical companies that in turn touted the numerous benefits of their wonder drugs.

    Here we are know, looking at the juvenile criminal justice system and the politicians are using same playbook. It worked once, why not use it again. I’m sure the next step will be to close more camps altogether. This has already been done by the way.

    As the states population continues to grow, we don’t see a need to build more prisons or juvenile facilities? Instead, we yell fire and make the arguement we don’t have enough space to house the criminals. A lawsuit is filled by the ACLU on behalf of the criminals arguing cruel and unusual punishment, unsafe housing conditions, etc. before a liberal courts. The sympathetic left judges issue a court order demanding the state correct the problem. The state doesn’t fight the courts decision, and the legislature promptly drafts bills to release criminals and lower their costs.

  • Betito, thank you for your service and commitment to educating and mentoring these misguided “kids”. I too, was raised in the hood and made mediocre decisions, being a contemporary of many of the dudes that started a street gang in my town/barrio. I too was a substitute teacher for LACOE while working on a grad degree. And, I too was an advocate for the “kids” that tried to reach out as a teacher. I, however, decided to join your enemies by applying and being hired by a juvie correctional agency. I haven’t looked back!
    After seeing the “kids’” true colors in their living units, and my classroom after the “honeymoon” was over, I began to see the realization that many of these “kids” are non corrigibles. I can see if a kid has cognitive impairments or is under the age of 16, but at 16 and older, if the State of California trusts one to make life/death decisions on the road with a 4,000 lbs machine, then at 16 they should be held more accountable for their actions/inactions. Yes, guide them, mentor them, but strict accountability must be imposed to those that, after being offered all the state/county interventions available, continue to break the law.
    Enough with this hyper-sensitive, hyper-therapeutic correctional environment. Some of these wards are monsters, and as such, they need to be removed from the general population so that those that are more corrigible can feel safe and feel more willing to listen. After all, if their safety and security needs aren’t met, they will never be able to ascend to satisfy their higher needs.
    Keep up the good work, but remember to stay in your lane. Especially, when the shit is going down in the living units and rec yards. Be safe…

  • Unless you lived through it you cannot judge. I myself grew up in the hood, drugs, gangs and poverty. So, I have first hand experience in what the writer is talking about. I took a different path from a lot of my homies, and did something with my life. I became a registered nurse. I myself made a lot of mistakes growing up, but had a mother who was always on me. A lot of my homies got shot, deported or are doing life. Maybe if they had a positive influence in their lives, it would be different, but lots of them didn’t. It’s a cycle hard to get out of.

  • Kate, with all due respect, you are a data point, a data set of one. If we made policy based on each individual’s experience or desire for punishment or revenge, god help us. I would probably feel the same way, if not worse, if it were my daughter, but that is why society doesn’t put the decision regarding punishment on the individual or the victim. And, most kids are not in there for molesting toddlers. And, if they are, they were probably victims themselves at one point, and we, you, and society probably failed them. We usually only care when the issue impacts us directly.

    Enough Already, I think you mean “incorrigible.” You cannot just add “non” to a word and make it mean the opposite of its meaning. Great analogy, though. So, if we raise the driving age, will you go easier on them. How about drinking, should we lower the drinking age since we send them off to kill or be killed at 18, sometimes 17? I don’t doubt that there are some kids that have biological, organic issues and are psychopaths, as there are juvenile correctional officers, police officers, doctors, and presidents that are psychopaths and act out there psychopathic tenancies. What do you propose for those?

  • CF…way to minimize someone’s personnel pain to preserve your biased, pro-criminal anti-law enforcement, criminal zero-accountability mind-set. A data point, a data set of one..how pompous and dismissive. Bravo…nice to see how you and your ilk quantify a real persons pain and experience.

    Yes, mental illness has no boundaries, and their are many functional psychopaths and socio-paths in Sacramento, Washington DC as well as walking amongst us. The issues is, you and your type are on a mission to help ensure they are empowered to prey upon the innocent and weak.

    People are finally realizing the truth behind the hypocrisy and facade of liberal, progressive politicians who’s only goal is to maintain their power by manipulating those groups that may feel disenfranchised and victimized. They use dog whistles and use terms like anti-immigrant versus anti-illegal immigrant, collusion again not the President when in fact they are guilty of the offense and equate national nail pride with white supremacy. Barak Obama, The Clintons, Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Newsome and many other so-called liberals are all millionaire many times over. What do they have in common with the average US Citizen….absolutely nothing?

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