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Who Can Fix Camp Nobody? 

Los Angeles County probation camps offer abuse instead of rehab

Thursday, Jul 8 2010
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Watch exclusive interviews in the "Camp Nobody" video and see more photos in the slideshow, "Probation Camps: Abuse Instead of Rehab."

"I wouldn't stop till I saw blood. A lot of blood," says Jesse Aguiar, smiling easily in his neatly pressed button-up shirt as he sits on the well-maintained lawn at East Los Angeles College. A world of gangs and violence now part of the past, the handsome, vibrant, 18-year-old freshman from Watts has just completed the last final of his first semester. Thriving in academia, he's overcome considerable challenges as a product of the scandal-ridden Los Angeles County juvenile-probation system.

Under apparently ineffective U.S. Department of Justice federal oversight for nearly a decade, the department has foundered, making headlines because it is unable to account for $29 million spent from last year's budget.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SAM SLOVICK - Jesse Aguiar: attending college now, but not sleeping well

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In addition, nearly half of some 400 internal probes last year into allegations of misconduct by probation employees weren't concluded before the statute of limitations expired. Many involved abuse of incarcerated youth. And creepy videos have surfaced on YouTube of what appear to be organized fights allowed between kids in the juvenile probation camps.

In short, the county juvenile probation department has reached a critical point.

Aguiar's first contact with law enforcement was when he was interrogated after a fight at school when he was 7. "I've been in four probation camps, three (foster care) placements and every juvenile hall in L.A. County," he says. "Probation is a setup. For most people who can't see the bigger picture, they fall into the trap and they can't get out. They treated us like we weren't humans. I went in when I was 12 and angry, and came out like an animal when I was 13."

With a $700 million annual budget, the Department of Probation has 6,200 employees, including 4,200 sworn officers. It runs 15 residential treatment camps and three juvenile halls, handling 20,000 juveniles currently on probation, and 3,500 kids in custody, including 1,342 in camp and 1,285 in halls at a cost of $252 per day for camp and $384 for halls.

The department reports a staggering 70 percent recidivism rate, meaning that the vast majority of kids break the law again once they get out. The department's spokesman, Kerri Webb, says, that a "70 percent recidivism rate means that ... when juveniles are released, they re-offend and reenter the correctional system."

Facing lawsuits by the DOJ and American Civil Liberties Union, the department and its dysfunction came into sharp focus in a recent report by the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review. "Different people seem to work in silos with different stand-alone data bases that couldn't communicate with each other, and there was no one person in charge to make sure that the whole thing functioned appropriately," according to the review office's attorney Michael Gennaco.

The bureaucratic disconnect found in the report feeds a system, critics say, that amounts to the institutionalized abuse of minority kids from poor neighborhoods by law enforcement.

Critics say the department actually cultivates young peoples' antisocial attitudes, provoking further criminal behavior and ultimately setting young people up for long-term incarceration. They have long pointed to key elements of the probation system such as requiring kids to carry field identification cards containing their names and other information, allowing police to decide whose names go on gang lists, adding punishment enhancements for those on the gang lists, and confining traumatized youth to ineffective and even abusive probation camps.

Kim McGill, from the Youth Justice Coalition, says when a kid gets out, nobody makes sure they go back to school. Left to themselves, she says, "They can't access the resources that you're demanding that they access in order to remain in the community and not violate the terms of their probation."

At the eye of the storm is newly appointed Chief Probation Officer Donald Blevins, who was credited with reinventing the Alameda County Probation Department in the Bay Area. Some think Blevins presents an opportunity to overhaul the L.A. system.

"These kids have been brutalized in their neighborhoods and they get into our facilities and guess what? The same things are recurring," Blevins says at a meeting with Martin Flores and Danny Laughlin from Yo Watts (Youth Opportunity Movement), a community organization from South L.A. "We don't wanna be part of the problem, and in some cases we have been," Blevins says.

Yo Watts works a simple magic: "Support, education, jobs ... we help them work through whatever obstacles that come up," Laughlin says.

As a result, "We have 23 percent recidivism rate," says Flores. "These are the kids who are back in school and working. We monitor about 75 to 80 percent of them."

Aguiar's success — evidenced by his entry into college — is the result of a confluence of programs and guidance from his Los Angeles Trade Technical College teacher, Roberta Villa. "We're all very proud of Jesse," she says. But the Trade Tech program Aguiar attended inside Camp Gonzales has been lost to California state budget cuts.

Villa says community organizations can put shattered young lives back together partly because they are independent of the probation system that traumatizes them. Several punishments Aguiar says he endured in the camps are illegal, not to mention life-threatening.

"They'd make us sit motionless on blacktop in 100-degree heat for an hour," he says. "If you wiped the sweat from your eyes, we'd get more time. It was unbearable. Squatting and holding push-up positions. Some kids would collapse and get sent to the box (solitary confinement) for up to 48 hours. When it was cold, you would freeze your ass off. If you had to use the restroom between meals, you held it in or shit yourself. They don't even check to see if you're still alive."

Not all the kids in the camps were hard-core troublemakers and he recalls that many broke down under the pressure. But he said few of the youth ever filed a complaint because such an action "ain't going nowhere, anyways."

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck says the old model of "suppression" is evolving to "a more inclusive model that includes all the other pieces. Do we get there fast enough? Probably not. But are we getting there? Absolutely. Do we get people out of the system as aggressively as we put them in? No. And I think that's one of the advantages of a new look at probation."

Jesse's smile vanishes as he recalls a turning point when he was 12. He says that an LAPD officer handcuffed him, beat him with a baton and spit in his face when he refused to give the officer information about another member of a gang he was affiliated with. "He told me, 'you're nothing. That's where you always going to be. On the ground I'm gonna be looking down at you.'"

Blevins agrees, "We're battling a whole life experience by the time these kids get here. Whether they were abused physically, sexually, emotionally ... whether they dropped out of school in the eighth grade."

The Advancement Project's Connie Rice, who has a deal with the city to run the Los Angeles Violence Intervention Training Academy, says, "Our probation department is a gang factory. It's beyond incompetence. It's malpractice and it's bordering on criminal." She wants Blevins to replace the top 15 positions in the department.

Back at home, Jesse Aguiar doesn't sleep well. He wakes every couple of hours sorting through memories, trying to reconcile the things that he's done and the things that have been done to him.

Returning to his family home in Watts, he walks a fine line. He violates an injunction by having contact with former associates who are active gang members. But he shows his face "so they don't come looking for me."

At daybreak, Aguiar puts on his new blue suit, a gift from Danny Laughlin. Aguiar is a featured speaker at the Crossroads Youth to Education and Employment Conference at the Marriott downtown.

He's considering his options for summer employment. He's plotting a future after graduation. He's designing his own program for young people and wrestling with a new idea: forgiveness.

Reach the writer at sam@samslovick.com

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