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DJJ Watch: The Secrets of Data Collecting Inside California’s Youth Prisons

In a numbers-driven world, how and why institutions collect data is important – sometimes equally important to the collected data itself. During my professional life, I have worked for 22 years in public educational institutions. Yet in more than two decades of teaching, I have not seen a more calculated method of compiling data than that of California’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) where I taught social studies for four years.

Specifically, I taught at N.A. Chaderjian, located in Stockton, one of the state’s four youth correctional facilities.

Entrance to shared site of DJJ’s secluded O.H. Close and Chad facilities, courtesy of CJCJ.

At Chad, as the facility where I worked is known, I was not part of the tactical discussion regarding how data is collected until the spring semester of 2019, when DJJ’s Superintendent of Instruction introduced a new and improved detention system designed to minimize the number of teens returned to their cells during school hours, which was, on the face of it, a worthy goal.

Yet, near the end of his presentation, the superintendent explained one of the primary reasons for the new system.

“This is the legal maneuvering that we are doing to prevent generating data that CJCJ will use against us,” he said.

By “CJCJ” the superintendent meant the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a respected non-profit justice advocacy organization well-known for its reports on and analyses of issues surrounding criminal justice and juvenile justice systems in the state of California.

Change in the average number of youth involved in a violent incident each month, per 100 youth in the facility, August 2015-July 2016 vs. August 2017-July 2018/via CJCJ report

In Feb. 2019, CJCJ released an extensive and scathing report on DJJ’s youth facilities, which exposed a long list of problems within the state’s youth justice system. In their research, the CJCJ authors made use of data provided by DJJ itself, along with extensive interviews with informants inside at least three of the four facilities.

Since, according to the superintendent, one of the main raisons d’etre for the proposed new school detention and in-house suspension system was to produce data showing zero in-house suspensions, even though before the change in how we documented them, suspensions actually occurred on a weekly or sometimes daily basis.

This unsettling maneuvering got me to think about where else DJJ exercised a similar sort of “hide the ball” strategy for data and information gathering. Without much effort, I came up with the following three areas where I had personal contact with these numbers games: fights between youth, staff assaults, and the aforementioned school detention / in house suspensions.


If a fight falls in the forest

Inside a juvenile prison, a fight only occurs if it is documented.

For nearly 12 years, ending in February 2016, the DJJ operated under a state consent decree brought on by a massive class-action lawsuit, Farrell v. Harper, which laid down a long list of mandated reforms.

Post-consent-decree, members of DJJ’s administration learned to be very careful about how certain things are documented, or not documented.

DJJ youth showers/via CJCJ

Among those actions and events that are subject to a less-than-straightforward form of documentation are fights between kids, the idea being if a tree falls in the woods and no one makes an official report … well, you know the rest.

Certainly, in many cases, violence is documented, particularly if it was caught on camera or seen by the right person who will not let the incident slide.

Yet, even if a fight between two kids is documented, the reason behind the fight may not be, and that is critical. I can think of one particular situation in which a staff member put two teens together in the shower area knowing a fight would ensue because one was a Norteño meaning he was part of the cluster of Northern California gangs. The other was a Sureño, a Southern California gang member.

This orchestrated fight occurred one week before a parole board hearing for one of the combatants who, prior to the fight, had managed to steer his time at Chad in a more positive direction, graduating from high school, and taking one or two college courses.

Although the individual fighters would not have, of their own accord, put themselves in such a situation, once they were in the shower together, they brawled. And, as expected, due to the recent fight, the parole board denied the young man’s release. Yet, the data will not show anything other than the fact that a youth ward was denied parole release because he fought the previous week.

Other strategically documented events are less easily untangled.

On my last day at Chad, I received an email from a psychologist stating that some youth wanted to speak with me. The request came as an indirect result of an essay I’d recently published on the abuse of pepper spray. Evidently, some of the youth managed to read the article. I was not surprised in that, the day after it was published, I noticed security staff members passing the essay around among their colleagues. In any event, the young men decided I was someone who might listen to them.

The kids who made the request were widely known as the “Prop. 57 guys.” These were young men who’d received a second chance when they passed what is known as a “fitness hearing,” which meant their cases that had been headed for adult court could now be tried in juvenile courts.

One of the conditions for qualifying under Prop. 57, was for the applicants to denounce their organizations and/or gangs. From that point forward, they were what are known as “dropouts.”

(Editor’s Note: Prop. 57 is the ballot proposition approved by California voters in November 2016 that, among other things, eliminated the “direct filing” of youth into adult court by prosecutors, leaving the decision up to judges. On February 1, 2018, the California Supreme Court held that the provisions of Prop. 57 that eliminate the direct filing of youth into adult court, were to be applied retrospectively to cases not yet final.)

According to the dropout guys I heard from, their trouble began immediately upon arriving at Chad, when the facility’s gang coordinator failed to categorize them as dropouts. Instead, he insisted that they continue to be associated with their original gang affiliation, which was extremely problematic for the youth involved, as it made them targets for the former rival gangs.  And, far worse, as dropouts, they also became targets for members of their former fellow gang members.

One youth told me that he and the other Prop. 57 guys wrote letters to the administration, requesting that their category be changed to the correct designation of “dropouts” to prevent confusion regarding what other youth they could safely program with.

The administration denied their requests.

“Get the fights out of the way so you can participate in programs,” was the message they received from several high-ranking members of security and even administrators, according to the youth, a message that was corroborated by others, including a colleague of mine, who was present in one instance when the fight-it-out instruction was given.

Another youth, who was not a product of Prop. 57, but who refused to attend school to avoid being assaulted, was encouraged by the Assistant Principal to get his “fades” out of the way — another word for fights — so he could attend school.

So, yes, fights occurred, making the youth appear dangerous. The data would never show that a significant number of fights were encouraged by adults.

According to one of the Prop. 57 youth, a sergeant expressed curiosity about seeing him fight another kid who was considered a heavy hitter. The sergeant and another staff member planned to take the two youth to the school area, where there are no cameras, during one particular weekend, where the staff-encouraged brawl was to occur.  I never learned if the fight took place. But if it did, again this fight would never make it into official statistics. In the end, only those present would hear the tree fall.

At Chad, most fights are documented because there are a lot of cameras, which record everything within their visual range. Yet there are blind spots in the coverage and both staff and kids are aware of those blind spots. They include the interiors of the transportation vans, the facility’s closets, the showers, all of the school rooms, and also the schoolyard — the latter being a place that major youth riots have occurred.


Staff assaults and backstories

On the day I heard DJJ’s Superintendent of Education talk about “legal maneuvering,” I thought of the approximately 30 guys who were charged with assaulting a staff member during my 4-year tenure at Chad. Nearly all of the 30 were subsequently charged as adults for the assaults, and transferred to adult prisons. Yet, this approximate count does not include the various backstories that, in many cases, would show how a situation was provoked, and how it could have been prevented entirely.

During my tenure, I was indirectly involved in two incidents having to do with assaults on staff, and have spoken at length with other youth who were charged with a staff assault.

The incident that impacted me the most, emotionally and psychologically, occurred on August 22, 2017, when a young man was caught with a prison-made shank and admitted he was planning to attack me. The DJJ filed adult charges against the kid, and soon thereafter the youth was convicted and transferred to an adult prison.

On the surface, this story may come across like a slam-dunk case that needs no further review.

“He made a choice,” I heard several senior staff say.

“Hey, he was convicted for the knife incident,” said Chad’s Assistant Principal.

I told her I didn’t think he should have been charged, that his conviction does not get to the root of the problem.

“Well I am very happy that the little shit was found guilty and is now being transferred to an adult prison,” said the AP.

To me, the reality of the matter was far more complicated.

First, due to intake overflow, upon arrival to Chad, the youth was placed in the wrong living unit. It is not uncommon for the intake unit, known as McCloud, to be full at which point guys are placed in other units. Second, although the teen demonstrated significant signs of emotional and psychological instability, he was assigned to a unit in which the school area of the unit does not have assigned security on the premises, meaning teachers have to rely on a response team from outside the school during an emergency.

Third, the teen made the prison-shank out of scissors that he took from the closet when our special education specialist unwisely permitted approximately eight guys to enter a storage closet unsupervised to retrieve a television. As soon as my colleague lost control of the situation, rather than calling security and cleaning-up the spiraling mess, he left the premises without notifying me what had occurred.

Finally, the kid made the shank right before his initial intake review. During the intake review, all youth are given a copy of their “paperwork” which mentions their charges, making them feel particularly vulnerable and anxious if there’s something in their charges that could be viewed negatively by other youth. And remember, this kid was already placed in the wrong living unit, which meant he felt especially unprotected.

As it happened, it was getting caught with the shank that finally got him transferred to a more appropriate living unit. It is not uncommon for kids to do stupid things or even attempt suicide in order to force or prevent a transfer for their own safety.

As for the scissors-made shank, the closet where he got the scissors was linked to my classroom and, as soon as I noticed a mischievous grin on one of the students, I looked toward the closet and realized exactly what occurred.

A group of unsupervised youth had gotten their hands on things in that closet they shouldn’t have in their possession, a pair of scissors, among them.

By the time I saw the boys, they were looking both guilty and gleeful. I immediately called security and fearing what turned out to be true, I requested that the guys be thoroughly searched (a.k.a. stripped searched), but security refused to do it.

Days later, the prison shank made of broken scissors was located on the kid who made the thing, and the boy admitted he intended to stab me.

And so adult charges resulted for a boy who did not get the right help from the minute he arrived at Chad. Another scary statistic — that could have been far scarier — that is misleading without its backstory.

The other staff assault incident with which I was indirectly involved occurred inside my classroom. It was the beginning of period five when a colleague arrived to cover my class as I needed to leave to supervise one of Chad’s college programs. Yet, when the teacher designated to cover my class entered, she immediately began to yell at a youth who was at the time sitting down and quietly drawing.

Many of our youth enter Chad with huge gaps in their education, so our first challenge is to get them to feel comfortable being in a classroom for the duration of the class. So, I’d have definitely let him draw.

Yet, there were various ways the teacher could have instructed the youth to stop drawing then directed his attention back to the class assignment, if she deemed it important.  She chose the most shaming course of action, which is rarely productive.

In response, the youth calmly stated that he intended to draw the entire class session.

After a couple of back-and-forth’s between the teen and the teacher, she snatched the drawing from underneath his pencil. In reaction, he stood up and requested that she return his drawing before eventually snatching it back.

I was running late so, soon after the teen snatched his drawing back, I managed to gather my belongings and walk out of the classroom.

The following day I learned that the teacher filed a staff assault against the kid. As a result, he was sent to Kern Unit, a restrictive unit where guys are sent for excessive fighting.

Learning about how the incident had played out, I wrote a supplemental report, documenting my observation. Though no adult charges were brought, the teen was left in the restrictive living unit for several weeks.


Magically vanishing school suspensions

As I mentioned earlier, the legal maneuvering proposed by the superintendent had to do with class security, and how to avoid the appearance of class suspensions.

In the old system, if a youth was disrupting the classroom the teacher could send him to detention or back to his cell, depending on the severity of the situation. With the new system, the “education intervention” team is required to hand over any non-complying youth to security. If security personnel send the youth back to his cell, technically he was not returned by the teacher thus the action doesn’t count as a school suspension — so it will not generate any unpleasant data that could let CJCJ find out what’s actually going on at DJJ.

In a system with a 75 percent recidivism rate within three years of youth being released, a focus on creating nice, neat, plausible-appearing data would seem to be the wrong goal.

Yet a remark that an otherwise pleasant member of Chad’s security units made to me seemed to sum up a great deal.

“If a youth is killed after release,” he said one time when we were chatting, “that youth is considered a success for our data, since he will not recidivate.”


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

His essay is one of a series that has taken us inside California’s Department of Juvenile Justice. You can find two other essays from the series here and here.

8 Comments

  • I love your article because it has zero credibility and a conflict because you worked there you can see the hatred and your newspaper is always newbies who want a better newspaper hiring.

  • Mr. Beto Gutierrez, and CJCJ has zero credibility!!! All the articles, statics are pure hatred. The “California Youth Community Restoration” agency are dedicated to their profession. These young men and woman in custody have everything. Medical, Education, Incentives programs, Xbox one, Pizza Party, Movies, Tickets to the LA Rams, LA LAkers….and the list goes on. Stop writing these ARTICLES that are pure hatred and nonsense. Thank you

    • Janet Perez I am not aware of who you are, however, I will have to disagree with your comment. I would like to first say that Mr. Gutierrez is very much on point with how the staff, administrators, teachers, CO’s communicate and strategize to save their own asses. You say the kids in custody of these facilities have everything they need, False! These kids lack basic socio-emotional help and support. These kids are missing time with family (strict visitation rules plus long-distance make it impossible for too many). These kids are missing a decent education, these kids are missing far more than you think. These are only a few of the many things kids do not receive regarding “treatment.” You also say there are medical services and though that may appear to be true on the surface, as a former CDCR, DJJ “patient” I did not receive proper medical care. In fact, I was given below standard treatment and I have severe health issues, I am disabled. The doctors and nurses have a total disregard for the “patients” if you will. Or perhaps we are just little “criminals” who don’t deserve to have a broken ankle fixed or in my case a simple x-ray. The pizza parties and video games you mention are not good collateral for the basic human needs needed to support and rehabilitate these kids – don’t entertain them, rehabilitate them. You can continue to be in denial but that doesn’t change the facts. Good day to you!

  • Actually this article is very true, I say this because I was incarcerated there at one point in my life. Everything sounds so accurate, that it kind of reminds me about being back in there. All the corruption and mistreatment. Keep doing what you do Mr Gutierrez

  • I was in Chad from 1993 to 1996. It was brutal, dehumanizing, and demoralizing. If anyone should say anything otherwise has never been incarcerated and has definitely never been to Chad.

  • I was never in Chad however I was in OH Close (1979) and then in DeWitt Nelson 1982.
    I had difficulties at home prior to my commitment and after going to juvenile hall at the ripe age of 11 years old I finally found a place that had a defined set of rules that I could understand and excel in. For most youths I recon would not enjoy life in a detention facility however didn’t come from my home.
    Being that I just started High School being that I just started high school and I did not really care to much about my worthless life (per my step fathers reinforced sarcasm).
    I had no other gauge to measure my self prospective until I was institutionalized.
    My first trip to CYA I was scared as it was with my first trip to juvy in santa clara county..
    Rumors of being forced into sexual acts by other inmates where soon realized to be unsubstantiated.
    The violence on the other hand was inescapable..
    I started to lift weights as soon as I had access to weights arriving at a weight of around 110 pounds I soon reached 150 pounds with the ability to bench press 250 pounds.
    My physical health through out my life has maintained good fitness as a result.
    I was paroled from oh close.and.completed parole successfully but was returned to my home..
    Being older I left my house to get way from the hatred my step father displayed to me.
    Lacking a high school education and any significant work experience I decided.to try some stupid solution.
    I attempted a pc 211 of a gas station manager while he made.a bank deposit.
    I failed in my attempt and approx. 1 week later 2 San Jose police detectives arrived at my brothers house to inquire of my where abouts the previous week.
    I told them do you mean the bank ?
    They where bewildered by my confession and asked me if I would talk to them down town
    .I agreed and fully confessed to my actions.
    I figured if I got away with the money 20,000 it would get me through school if I got caught I would go back to ya and finish school..
    It was 2 months before my 18 th birthday and as I was about to be sentenced the commissioner stayed on the record that he did not understand why nobody pushed for a fitness hearing. My probation officer reported that I was a sociopath which my mother objected too she felt that I was simply a con.
    My confession and cooperation was the reason that a fitness hearing was no pushed.
    The commissioner further stated that due to the sophistication of the crime that if I pled guilty he would impose the maximum sentence of 5 years..
    I pled guilty and gave some cockamamy reason and the sentence was imposed .
    This was my second time to CYA and I completed or made up for 4 years of high school by obtaining my GED with in a few months .
    There is two different standards of law and politics that I learned in cya that of the california penal code and related legislative institution codes which the COs are mandated to enforce and then there is the inmate codes or politics which both sides strictly enforce.
    I learned and adapted my environmental surroundings to a accommodate through best practice a best solution by manipulating the prison politics of the inmates to accommodate the legislative directives of the institution.
    My opportunity presented it self in an on going process which began on my arrival.
    I was sitting in the day room in my first 5 minutes of arrival when a older kid sat next to me and asked me directly ” are you down for your race”?
    My response was I am down for Jesus..
    They left me alone while I acclimated to my new environment.
    Working out getting to know the other inmates.
    Then after being there for about 3 months I observed the “wood pile” this is reference to the white boys as all persons incarcerated are pit into political ” cars ” if you are “down” for your race then your accepted . if not you are considered a “nac” non affiliated Caucasian and you are picked on and beat up and ostracized by your peers.
    I was still being examined and though I was not considered down initially I was respected because of my physical strength , I bench pressed 300 pounds, and because of my wisdom.
    So I observed the wood pile gathered around the D wing which is the lowest rated wing of classification by the institutional standards. C wing was average. B wing was programmers and A wing where for farm crew workers who made 50 cents an hour at a location of the institution grounds at a nursery in Stockton.
    I walked up and sat down amount them and stated, You all think you are so powerful pecked woods but I see a bunch of dudes who don’t have anything down here on the d wing while the northerners are running the kitchen and the brothers ( African Americans ) are running the laundry and they are trading and having things whole you all are sitting down here with nothing.
    4 months later the wood pile was all on the A wing leaving the institution every day making money and I got 1 of 2 work furlough jobs. First I was employed by black angus then by sears and roebuck as a tire installer.
    The COs provided me with a car to take my cdl test which I passed and that started my 20 year profession in the automotive repair dealer industry which 10 years as a top performing mechanic and 10 years as a manager.
    I also had day passes on the weekend ..
    An ex girlfriend of mine foind out I was there and began writing me she lived in Stockton and I spent my day pass time with her..
    I smoked some pot and was tested about 30 days before my parole hearing came up I was dirty lost my day pass and my job bit never the less I was released at the board hearing.
    When I went to oh close a psychiatrist by the name of Olivia Constance tool imterest in me and put me in her cognitive therapy class which taught me critical thinking and I attribute much of my successful years to her teaching and the poportunities that I recieved from the institutions.
    When I paroled from DeWitt I had a cdl 1700 dollars.( I made 4.40 an hour at sears.
    My first month at sears I noticed a list of the top 100 performing tire installers which was rated by the labor dollars they flagged on the repairs they did.
    I asked my self if I could make the top ten and by observing the labor on the work orders I picked the jobs that recorded the highest labor as best I could. The next month I made the top ten.
    It was on the following month I rated number one and received a 25 dollar snap coupon..I bought a kershaw folding knife which I used as a tool at work and carried that knife through the ten years as a mechanic. No matter where I went I made number one position. When it came to working on flat rate I made a good living supported my wife and three daughters and finally found the posutive reinforcement that every human being desires to be accepted as a productive member of society which represents a cross section of people.
    I heard soon after I left the institution that the wood pile made a plan to take the fertiliser from the farm crew and put into the senior youth councillors coffee.
    They where caught charged with attempted murder and sent to prison as a result.
    There are many things I learned as an automotive technition in regards to california legislation enacted by govoner Ronald Reagan. He do a great service to the state and as far as I knkw with this nation as president marked by the day her told Gorbachev to tear down the wall in Germany a stark alternative to todays administration of building up new walls.
    As I promoted into management after obtaining my bar brake lamp and pre bar 90 smog inspector adjusters licenses I was exposed to labor laws unemployment workmanscoml sb 198 hazardous communication program implementation and maintenance. Company policies small claims court and even no. Profit vehicle donation programs where I worked for the sacs foundation which is the suicide and crisis services where I volunteered for tge departme t of health and human services in Santa Clara county as a.crisis intervention counsellor for 5 years..The foundation approached me about acquiring vehicles and slogging them that led to a position where the giaretta institution in San Jose approached me with an offer to direct their vehicle donation program which I accepted researched and the implemented thier program set it up made several thousand dollars and then due to the fact that I had 3 kids and a wife who wanted more of my time I had to give up that program and ultimately my wife for responding too late.
    These volunteer services did much to make me feel very good about my self bit I laid the ultimate price of losing my family for not being home to give my wife the attention she demanded. I regret that of all things learned .
    All these experiences gave me the ability to connect the dots researching the staye of california legislation.
    I am a son of the state of california as I was a 602 ward of the court. I do not regret most of my life choices and I always strived to be tge best man I could. Much of my success I attribute to the people that gave me the yhe opportunity to try and then my commitment to succeed.
    My mother taught me to rely on god and she was a star example in defining what it means to have a constitution.
    To me a constitution is the ability to have a positive effect on the environment that you live in. By example one can lead to a more positive environment that promotes the best in every one.
    Not to be vain I have noted that in places where I go I bring a positive influence and when I leave that influence follows me..
    I worked in numerous auto repair facilities.
    I had sitiations where the union rep and ten mechanics surrounded me and told me t slow down I was making them look bad. Management put me in a separate building and eesolved that problem.
    Unfortunately in government and todays political arena when you make politicians look bad they try every thing to discredit you. This form of government is self defeating and will eventually consume itself.
    My years as a store manager I ranked number shop and my crews where number one crews I never asked any body to do anything which I was not willing to do myself that is what leadership is about leading by example. Following up with explanations.
    I recall one shop we where producing close to 70 thousand a month I left that employment a d the following report was 25 thousand the shop closed a couple months later.
    My performance I always challenged myself to do better. In all my environments to make the best contributions that I was capable of.
    If I implemented rules they where rules that I followed. This is a key essential principle in succeeding before man and god.
    I have a whole nother story to tell which relates to local staye tribunal.and the 3 branches of the united states of america federal government, the rule of law, the constitution, the right to parent my children and to be recognized as a productive member of society who is part of the solution to answer corruption in our government by those who have freely expressed an oath to uphold and defend the constitution of the united states of America.
    One of the grosses and unanticipated policies I have come to understand is the whistle blower protection laws which do not protect whistle blowers at all it stifles them.and takes away thier voice in ADA and AOL.
    I would go into to that however I would simply have to redact those lines and you would simply be left telling like most American citizens follow pages of black lines in reports like the Mueller report or the OIG Horowitz investigations.. For this part of my contribution as an anonymous whistle blower I can only state that the advantages that I had in cya as a juvenile offender worked for me and I appreciate the programs that once where available in my time as a youth .
    The current policies make it difficult for me to acquire my GED records as DeWitt nson training. Academy is closed and I can not locate that GED.
    It can’t hide my successful years as a auto tech and a manager or the positive role that I make where ever I go.
    Though the world today has darkened into a world of monopolies and fierce competitiveness I would plead with all to consider the words that we speak to one another and remind you all that we are all part of the human race.
    To unify under the u universal law of treat each other as we would be treated and to remember the basic mosaic 10 commandments which even Trumps the constitution
    If one lies cheats steals kills dishonor thier parents covets anything at all well that is simply not a standard by which we ought to behave towards one another. The other laws I leave you to come to realize as I have that there is truly one god above is all who created all and is the father of us all he has every right and his law is the law of love.
    That is the standard by which we ought to follow implement and enforce so that we all may equally enjoy life and the pursuit of peace.
    I hope this message somehow enlightens people to the positive things that the CYA can do and how the CDCR may learn amd apply best practices to reduce recidivism and to open up to a cross section of people in a collaborative and transparent effort to rebuild the confidence of we the people out of the many comes one holding the sacred fire of liberty to direct the congress of the people to controversy the truth yesterday today and forevermore in order to build a more perfect form of government thank you and god bless.

  • Forgive my mispellings I can really blame that on these smart phones that really are not very smart at all. I should have proof read the previous statement but I’m sure you will get the meaning and purpose of the message. Thank you for allowing my imperfections that’s is something inherit to all human beings.

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