DJJ Watch

On June 30, 2023, CA’s Youth Prisons Will Close Their Doors, But Right Now There Are Essential Steps to Be Taken for Youth Safety

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed 2021-22 state budget nails down plans for the closure of the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), California’s youth prisons.

The slow-motion shuttering will begin on July 1, 2021, when DJJ will, for the most part, shut down the pipeline of young people being sent from the state’s counties.

By June 30, 2023, DJJ will permanently close its doors “along with a dark chapter in California’s history,” writes Policy Analyst, Maureen Washburn, of the Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, in a new report.

Washburn is familiar with that long “dark chapter.” In February 2019, she and her CJCJ colleague, Renee Menart, put out a comprehensive and devastating report on the state’s system of youth lock-ups, where they found a disturbing climate of violence and fear, along with a rash of attempted suicides and high rates of youth injuries, among other indicators that raised bright red flags about the emotional and physical safety of the kids inside DJJ’s three main aging facilities.

“For 80 years, DJJ has subjected youth to inhumane conditions, rampant violence, and appalling abuses,” Washburn writes of their deep dive examination. “Closing these institutions is a critical first step in repairing the harm done to tens of thousands of Californians across generations.”

The closure, however, has embedded in it a list of new dangers for the kids and young adults who will remain in these locked youth facilities, prior to their closure. This means that several changes in policy are urgently needed ahead of the shutdown, according to Washburn.

Oversight, oversight, and oversight

Number one, DJJ needs oversight, particularly during this slow-motion wind-down period when there will still be approximately 700 kids in residence, but likely very few outside people who are paying attention.

What happened during much of 2020, due to the COVID crisis, points to the larger problem.

For much of the last year, advocates like CJCJ’s Washburn and Menart, along with WitnessLA’s insider sources, which include concerned staff members, have described the collateral effects of the fact that COVID-19 kept family members, justice watchdogs, and government officials from seeing inside the youth facilities.

The lack of any kind of external oversight during the past year, combined with DJJ higher-ups seemingly “totally unprepared” to respond to the coronavirus crisis, as one staff member put it, led to repeated according to our sources working inside the DJJ system, higher-ups in the youth facilities seemed “totally unprepared,” and produced no well-organized system of quarantining and social distancing. This ultimately produced repeated spikes of COVID-19 in the youth facilities with a high of 56 active youth cases in July/August 2020, along with 46 staff cases. 

“When finally something happened and we had two kids with a fever and other symptoms, there was no plan,” said a staff source. “The world was shut down, but we had no plan in place about what to do. Why did it take so long to get the word out? Why did it take so long to get the unit on quarantine?”

Meanwhile, he said, staff were going in and out of the affected dorms. “We’re a state agency. But for some reason the governor’s guidance that went out to schools — we acted as if it had nothing to do with us.” And so it was that at Chad and at O.H. Close, the numbers began to climb. However, the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, located close to Camarillo, at first remained unaffected. Then on July 17, Ventura’s luck changed when the first youth tested positive at the Southern California youth prison. A week later still on Friday, July 24, the spiking began when 21 kids and one employee had tested positive at Ventura.”

In December, the COVID-19 cases among DJJ youth dropped down to 6. But by January 8, the numbers spiked again with 54 active cases among the youth.

Inside sources talked about fellow staff members who wore masks sporadically, and lied about COVID symptoms so they didn’t have to stay home from work and use up sick days. (Why during a once-in-century pandemic, staff members weren’t paid if they needed to stay home, is another topic altogether.)

The same sources reported that some staff skipped the weekly testing they were required to do, thus risking bringing the virus to the youth and to fellow staff members.

Matters were not helped that, even without COVID, there was no regular oversight for the DJJ facilities.

DJJ is a division of the CDCR — the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And the CDCR’s handling of the COVID crisis has been so appalling that one judge called CDCR officials’ attitude one of “deliberate indifference.” Then, earlier this month, California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) fined San Quentin State Prison the record-breaking sum of $421,880, for its substandard employee safety conditions related to its handling of the coronavirus, which raged through the prison last summer, making national news.

Yet, as bad as the COVID situation has been in the adult prisons, the adult facilities are subject to at least some independent oversight by the office of the Inspector General, as required by the California state assembly. This past fall, the CDCR’s OIG put out a scathing report outlining the adult prisons’ handling of the ongoing COVID crisis, which makes for breathtaking reading, and not in a good way.

Yet, there are no similar official assessments of what has gone on in the state’s youth prisons for the last year.

Technically, the OIG does do some oversight of the DJJ, according to Washburn and CJCJ, but not with any regularity. “The OIG mostly investigates specific allegations of misconduct by corrections staff members,” according to Washburn, rather than assessing and investigating how well or poorly things are going at the youth facilities on an ongoing basis, by doing unannounced visits, and deep-dive reports “on whether the youth lockups are still struggling with entrenched problems and patterns of neglect.”

As a consequence, in the years before the pandemic, DJJ saw the kind of “every day violence” that one former DJJ staff member reported here, and that Washburn and Menart documented in detail in their 2019 report.

“With fewer eyes on the system and staff morale sapped by closure plans,” wrote Washburn, “there is greater potential for the mistreatment of youth.” In other words, during the period before the final closure, matters are likely to get worse, not better.

So, as the DJJ moves toward closing its doors, oversight is urgently needed.

Attention must be paid.

3 Comments

  • “ON JUNE 30, 2023, CA’S YOUTH PRISONS WILL CLOSE THEIR DOORS, BUT RIGHT NOW THERE ARE ESSENTIAL STEPS TO BE TAKEN FOR YOUTH SAFETY”

    Do you possibly mean steps to be taken to keep the public safe from criminal youth? And God help us when there are fewer places to house convicted juvenile criminals.

  • I can say for an absolute fact that most of the youth that came in to the CYA left there better equipped to face the world. Lots of positive growth and change took place before the Department got bogged down by lawsuits and bureaucracy. Unfair to try to paint the entire history as a dark chapter. Many staff did excellent work with some tough cases and helped prevent future victims of crime. Many of the former youth will tell you that at the time it was the best thing that happened to them. Many have gone on to be very successful based on all the programs the CYA provided. This article definitely does not tell the full story.

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