Columns, Op-Eds, & Interviews DJJ Watch

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.

5 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.

Leave a Reply to P X