Illustrations by Sage Vaughn

The Child in Hard Time

Sometimes he hears voices.

Often they are quiet, just whispers. On December 2, 1999, it’s the voice of David Foster, gang leader. Blood. Convicted felon. David is 35 and one of the most feared people in the neighborhood. Alonza is walking home from school, wearing a light-blue shirt. “Hey,” David says. “Come here.”

Alonza runs, but the man catches him, sliding his heavy arms below Alonza’s thin armpits, locking the boy into a full nelson. “Why you wearing blue?” David says. “You a Crip?” David’s gang pours from the alley, surrounding the child. Some of the gangsters are children too, younger than Alonza. Three are girls. They kick Alonza’s legs, hit him with elbows, smack him in the head with a 40-ounce beer bottle. Alonza falls to the ground. A foot stamps on his face; the voices are screams. He digs at the cement, the rocks catching under his fingernails, lost in the bodies chanting, “Bloods, Bloods, Bloods.”1

Fifteen-year-old Alonza Rydell Thomas lives in Bakersfield in the sprawling desert of the Central Valley. The city is expanding. It’s now the 13th largest in California, with 221,000 people. They’re putting up pitched roofs faster than stoplights. People keep arriving from Los Angeles, snatching up the cheap houses. There are parks on the map, but the parks aren’t built yet. There are parts of Bakersfield with every chain restaurant you can imagine but no post office and no library. Drive half an hour just to send your mail. And there’s a ghetto not far from downtown in the eye of the sprawl, filled with low, dark bungalows, marked by their lack of air conditioning. It’s like living in an oven.

Alonza is 6-foot-3, thin as straw. He has a child’s shoulders, a child’s smile. He’s knobby and loose, like a puppet on a string. There’s something almost handsome about him if he wasn’t so awkward; there’s something wrong with his head. He’s not a bad kid; he doesn’t get in trouble. He’s not in a gang. His record is clean. His mother is a schoolteacher. Her name is Janice, but everybody calls her by her last name, Venus. His father lives in San Diego. He stayed with his father for a year when he was 12, but his father got rough and Janice had to call the police, bring him back home. He has two brothers, normal as can be.

Janice and Alonza see David Foster stopped by the police. Janice tells the police that this is the man who beat up her son. Alonza appears in court to testify against David Foster. Foster is sentenced to 13 years for a series of offenses and parole violations.

February 2000, desert winter. A note comes from school — Alonza has been failing his classes. In response, his mother takes his money, four dollars. Alonza thinks his mother doesn’t love him anymore. He’s never had a keen understanding of consequences.

He sits near the tracks east of Truxton Avenue, just down from the Kern County Superior Court. The slow-moving train passes overhead while the underpass tunnels beneath the rails. Alonza swings just for a second, long fingers gripping the steel-gray container, hauling himself into the empty car, traveling north toward Sacramento. He has become a statistic, one of 2 million American children who run away every year.

It’s been two weeks since Alonza grabbed the edge of the freight car, and it’s late at night. He stands at the door of his own home, but the door is locked. He thinks his mother has locked him out. Maybe she has. She says later she just didn’t hear him. He disappears into the city.

Alonza meets a man known as Baby Boy. Now they are partners. The man gives him food, beats him, molests him. Tells Alonza if he wants to go home, he’ll have to rob a store. At least that’s what Alonza says later, after he’s been sitting in a jail cell for a couple of weeks. No way to know if it’s true. But there’s some evidence to support it.2

March 21, 2000, 6:20 p.m., the Fastrip convenience store on Mount Vernon, right out there where those new houses are being built and the streetlights don’t work. A quiet neighborhood; never any crime. The store sells gasoline, alcohol and snacks. Alonza Thomas ties a scarf over his nose and behind his neck as the sun falls behind the mountains, leaving a hazy twilight for the moon. The gun is a .22, the second most stolen gun after the .38 and the third most popular for criminals, accounting for 16 percent of all crimes involving guns.3 Juveniles tend not to use them, preferring larger bores and semiautomatics. Alonza could close his fist around the gun and it would disappear.

He wears latex gloves, entering through the side door. He holds the firearm sideways, like he’s in a rap video or a Hong Kong action flick, waving the gun at the three men behind the counter. One of the men is Nassri Jaben, the owner of the Fastrip. Jaben is not supposed to be there. His briefcase sits on the counter.

For a moment the three men think it is some kind of joke, the scarf and the latex gloves and the way he holds the gun.

“Give me the money,” Alonza says. He doesn’t look behind him. He doesn’t seem afraid. He walks straight to the counter and presses the gun against Nassri’s chest, and the men no longer think it is a joke.

“You want the money?” Nassri states calmly. “If you want the money, I’ll give you the money.” He opens the register, takes the bills out, hundreds of singles, also fives, tens, twenties. Must be three hundred dollars. But he misses a twenty, and Alonza sees it.

“Money, money!” Alonza says. He’s getting irritated, and the men are becoming frightened. “I thought he was going to kill me,” Nassri says later in his deposition. The owner opens the register, gives Alonza the last twenty. There are no customers. It’s time for Alonza to leave, but he doesn’t. There is something wrong with him. His eyes are like glass.

Alonza slides the gun from Nassri’s shoulder. “Open the safe,” he says. The safe is on the floor beneath the register. Nassri bends toward the countertop. Alonza isn’t paying attention. Ali Salah, the clerk, grabs Alonza’s wrist and yanks him forward. “He made me do it!” Alonza cries, a stack of beef jerky tumbling to the floor.

Othimini, the other clerk, hops the counter. The gun goes off. A pop like a paper bag, followed by smoke. Nassri grasps the phone. “My employee has been shot,” he says to the police. But he’s wrong. The gun discharged, but no one was hurt. The bullet has lodged in the Formica, where it will stay.

Othimini hits Alonza in the head. They struggle through the store, bottles and snacks falling from the shelves. It takes several minutes to subdue the boy. He seems stronger than his size. He bucks like a man possessed. His gun sits on the floor. Finally, the two clerks pin the delinquent. Nassri places his own gun, a .40 Glock, against Alonza’s temple, warns him to stop moving. Eight squad cars, a helicopter and an ambulance are on their way. Nassri’s so angry he wants to shoot. Alonza’s scarf is snatched from his face. Nassri thinks, “He’s just a child.”

What Alonza Thomas doesn’t know is that two weeks before he walks into the Fastrip Food Mart holding a revolver sideways, demanding money, 62 percent of California voters approved the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, also known as the Pete Wilson Initiative, or Proposition 21.

It’s not an easy bill to understand. The initiative runs 45 pages, contains 24 new priors and amends dozens of existing provisions, rewriting the California criminal code. Full-time lawyers claim it takes three days to go through, and a law degree. Prop. 21 revises specific crimes for both adults and juveniles, changes available probation options, reduces confidentiality protections for juvenile suspects, lowers $20,000 down to $400 as the threshold for felony vandalism, and adds significant penalties for gang-related crimes for adults and juveniles — including the death penalty for gang-related murder.4

Most significantly, Proposition 21 changes the process of trying children as adults. The most serious juvenile felons, the rapists and murderers, were already almost always tried as adults before the passage of Proposition 21. Less serious but still violent crimes, like the armed robbery committed by Alonza, could be tried in adult court with a judge’s approval prior to Proposition 21 but usually weren’t. Those cases can now be filed directly in adult court at the whim of a prosecutor. This process, known as discretionary direct filing, is a favorite of the California District Attorneys Association, a group closely related to the bill. But voters don’t know about discretionary direct filing. They think they’re voting against gang violence. They think they’re voting to allow children to be tried as adults. They don’t know that children can already be tried as adults. They don’t know that what they are really voting for is to remove judicial oversight. The bill is assumed to cost in the hundred millions.

Fear is an easy thing to appeal to, and politicians have rarely lost elections for being too tough on crime. This is particularly true following the upsurge in youth crime between 1987 and 1993. In 1995, John Dilulio, a professor at Princeton, coins the term “juvenile superpredator.” Juvenile superpredators, according to Dilulio, are “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders.”5 Dilulio predicts the numbers of juvenile superpredators will swell in coming years if immediate action is not taken. “What we need,” he says, “are more churches and more jails.”

The superpredator burns through criminology like a lit butt in a bale of cotton. Dilulio and other academics like James Q. Wilson warn of a modern plague of youth crime. “Thirty-thousand more young muggers, killers and thieves,” states Wilson. “Get ready.” But the plague never arrives. In 1994, juvenile crime begins to drop. In 1997, crime has leveled off to pre-1987 statistics. In 1999, Wilson concedes, “So far [the rise in youth crime] clearly hasn’t happened. This is a good indication of what little all of us know about criminology.”

Nonetheless, former Governor Pete Wilson, in a short editorial supporting Proposition 21, quotes James Q. Wilson6 predicting that in coming years, “California murders are most likely to be committed by a 17-year-old. This is a tragedy for the victims and their loved ones, but also for those youthful perpetrators who, despite preventive measures and intervention by state and local public agencies, are so hardened and remorseless that they cannot be turned from violence. It is they from whom society must be protected.”7

It costs a lot of money to get a complicated initiative on the ballot. Most of the cash comes from major corporations. A Nevada casino and a Texas auto-insurance company each give $10,000 to the signature-gathering campaign. Chevron donates $25,000, Pacific Gas & Electric gives $50,000. Another $50,000 comes from Unocal, whose spokesman says, “We have a strong interest in youth.” Chevron spokesman Mike Marcy says his company contributed “at then-Governor Wilson’s request.”8

The campaign to get the initiative on the ballot raises three-quarters of a million dollars. But when Wilson leaves office and his presidential campaign founders, the corporate donors disappear. The measure sits on the docket like a weed.

Proposition 21 takes effect March 8, 2000. Alonza Thomas is the first child in Kern County tried as an adult under the new rules for discretionary direct filing. The juvenile superpredator has come to life, the unredeemable child, a first-time robber with a gun from Bakersfield. Had he been tried as a juvenile, Alonza would most likely have served three to six years. In March 2001, he is sentenced to 13 years in adult prison for armed robbery.

There are flowers in the garden and well-manicured lawns at Tehachapi State Prison, a Level IV adult correctional facility in the Kern County Valley. Upon arrival in September 2001, following six months in the California Youth Authority, Alonza is placed in a small isolation cell, usually reserved for punishing problem inmates, and given a series of medical, psychological and educational tests. He is fed in his cell, released for only a few hours a week for showers and exercise. While juveniles are being processed, they don’t go to school. Processing takes two to three months, but sometimes more.9

Alonza and the others are confined to maximum security in the new Youthful Offender Program, a separate beige wing with barbed-wire fences where 16- to 17-year-old juvenile offenders are prepared for the mainline. There are two small concrete outdoor exercise areas originally designed for adult Administrative Segregation inmates. The juveniles do not have access to the counseling and rehabilitative programs available to juveniles committed in the California Youth Authority. They spend their time in small groups in a windowless day room no larger than a king-size bed. They sleep two to a room and have access to television and radio unless they are under Administrative Segregation. School is canceled because of fog, because of a lack of space, because only five of the eight teacher positions are filled. Rules are strictly enforced. A third of the juvenile inmates are in Administrative Segregation at any given time. Juveniles in Administrative Segregation do not go to school.10

There are inadequate mental-health services. Alonza is transferred six times for short-term psychiatric treatment and each time is placed on medication, stabilized, then returned.

Janice visits Alonza, parking in the dirt lot in back of the Tehachapi campus. She is with her two other children, 12-year-old Phillip and 17-year-old Patrick. They wait in the entry for their names to be called. They are searched, their hair is checked, they are gone over with a wand, processed through a metal detector. Their hands are stamped. They wait for a bus. Thirty people board the bus and ride two minutes to another check-in facility, where they are searched again. They walk through a glass corridor, through an outdoor pathway, into a building where they take a staircase down. Here is the visitors’ area, sectioned off to the left for those who are visiting juveniles. Janice and her sons sit at a short table as high as their knees. Games are available: checkers, backgammon. When Alonza arrives, his face is like a plum, yellow eyes with purple lids, cheeks red and bruised.

“Who did this to you?” Janice asks. His eyes are so swollen he can barely open them. He sounds like he’s speaking through a sponge.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” he says. “It’s taken care of.” Janice doesn’t believe him. Calls the prison authorities to complain.

Many of the children at Tehachapi are mentally disturbed. The weeks and months in isolation cells exacerbate their conditions. In March 2003, a delegation of clergy visit and find a boy kept in a solitary cell in the infirmary, where seriously deranged adult inmates scream at him and expose themselves on the other side of the door’s small window. At some point, Alonza attempts suicide. In May, two juveniles at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, awaiting trail as adults, attempt to commit suicide. In July, Francis Ray, a 17-year-old youth offender serving a three-year sentence for second-degree robbery hangs himself after four months in an isolation cell at Tehachapi. State Senator Gloria Romero orders an investigation, resulting in a special report from the Inspector General.

One of the basic arguments made for placing juveniles in adult facilities is that these superpredators are a drain on resources better used on those kids for whom rehabilitation is considered a possibility. The Inspector General’s report strongly recommends a reversal of this policy. Following the report, Tehachapi’s special juvenile unit is closed in July 2004. Currently, children tried as adults are held with the general juvenile population until they turn 18, with the exception of the kids being held in Men’s Central Jail, awaiting trial.

When Janice calls Tehachapi to check on her son in August 2003, an officer tells her, “He won’t be coming back here.”11 Alonza has been transferred to Lancaster.

July 2005. It’s 110 degrees at 10 in the morning in the Antelope Valley, the sky a deep empty blue. A short, muscular prisoner named Vince Crittendon approaches the fence, wearing a sleeveless top and blue jeans and fingerless gloves for weightlifting.12 He’s been in prison for 20 years of a 30-to-life sentence for robbery-murder. He calls to a man in a shiny brown shirt and muted tie.

The man Vince calls to is Ken Lewis, assistant to the warden. Vince wants to talk about his son. He hasn’t seen him since the boy was 5. He tells Ken his son is next door, on the C Unit, serving seven years for something involving “drugs or guns.” He wants to see the child. Ken explains that it probably won’t be possible. Vince’s son is in a special-needs section and is not allowed to mix with prisoners from other units.

“Okay,” Vince says, nodding. “I just thought I could get through to him. Help him understand.”

They’re in the Honor Yard, a special unit reserved for well-disciplined prisoners serving life with little chance of parole. To be in the Honor Yard, a prisoner must spend five years incarcerated without incident, have no active gang affiliation, express willingness to associate with inmates of any race, and be drug-free. The Honor Yard is the showpiece of Los Angeles County Prison. It’s the only Honor Yard in the state. There is a sense of order and resigned calm. Men sit outside, playing cards or exercising, or in the art studio, watching a painting video. Other inmates repair glasses donated by the Lions Club that are then sent to those in need all over the world. In other yards, prisoners are separated by gang affiliation, history, security level. In the Honor Yard, the inmates mix freely.

In the same unit as the Honor Yard are buildings A4 and A5, Administrative Segregation, where Alonza Thomas is being held in solitary confinement five years after his botched attempt to rob the Fastrip Food Mart. For 10 hours a week, Alonza is taken to a small, enclosed yard. The yard can’t be seen. There is no day room, no interaction. In what should be the day room are cages where inmates are brought to meet with social workers, doctors, lawyers, out of earshot of the other prisoners. Administrative Segregation inmates wear white. When Alonza leaves the unit, he shuffles in ankle chains, hands cuffed behind his back, a guard on either arm.

Alonza has no radio, no TV. Nothing electric. In segregation, Alonza has been placed in solitary for his own protection. He snitched on his cellmate, just as, years before, he snitched on David Foster, the notorious Blood who was given 13 years after Alonza testified in court against him.13 Alonza Thomas has never had a keen understanding of consequences.

His mother thinks he belongs in a mental hospital. The psychiatrists keep him on medication. Since entering the California correctional system, Alonza has been transferred 18 times, at least seven times for psychological treatment. Sometimes the voices go away. Today the voice he hears is the voice of his former cellmate, whose segregated cell is just down the hall. The voice says Alonza is going to be killed.

According to Ken Lewis, nobody gets in to visit Administrative Segregation. “You would need permission from Sacramento,” he says. “And I can tell you right now they’re not going to give it to you.” Ken explains the layout of the unit, a design known as a 270, a square with a triangle cut from the center. There are 100 cells, 50 on top and 50 below, blue doors and small windows. Time like an ocean.

Ken has never heard of Alonza Thomas, but when the case is explained to him, he thinks Alonza could end up in an enhanced psychiatric unit or even a protective-custody unit. But it’s difficult to say. “It’s hard to get to a protective-custody unit. You have to be Michael Jackson.”

The prison in Lancaster is one of 15 new prisons constructed in the past 20 years to keep pace with the exponential growth of the California inmate population. Designed for 2,200 inmates but housing 4,700, the prison is operating at more than twice capacity just 12 years after opening. There are 809 peace officers, 442 support-services staff and an annual operating budget of $92 million.

There are four maximum-security units inside the double-fenced electrified perimeter of Los Angeles County Prison. Each unit holds five houses, which straddle four baseball field–shaped yards. Because of the space crunch, medium-security prisoners are kept in dorm beds in the day rooms of the maximum-security B and C units. The gymnasium houses another 120 beds in 40 three-tier bunks. Nobody wants to be on the middle bunk. There is no room for anything except the beds. There is no privacy. The gym inmates are held in the mattress jungle up to 20 hours a day. The medium-security prisoners will all be released some day, so they are not considered as great an escape threat.

Most maximum-security prisoners are in for life. Because of the overcrowding and the need to separate Level III and Level IV inmates, each group in B and C is given only two hours in the yard. Level D, the most dangerous unit — where Alonza was before being sent to isolation — is on lockdown following an inmate riot between Latino and white prisoners earlier in the week.

Ken doesn’t see a problem with bunking inmates. Ken was a Marine. “Serving the country,” he says. “I lived in a dorm all the time.” He’s not unsympathetic, just matter-of-fact. The California prison system already operates on a $7 billion budget. He doesn’t think taxpayers should have to pay any more. Some people think prisoners should be given lighter sentences, to ease the crowding, but Ken is concerned about the victims. He doesn’t think victims would appreciate the idea of releasing criminals because of overcrowding. He’s been to victims’ group meetings before, and that’s what he tells people when they start talking about prison reform. “Go to a victims’ group,” he recommends. “It will change you. Until you experience that kind of loss, you can never understand.”

Ken has worked in prisons most of his life. He’s a large man with a straight back, a bald head, broad shoulders and a kind smile. Prisoners see Ken as an advocate and hope to catch his attention, calling to him from behind the fence. Ken always stops to listen. In five years he’ll retire.

“What’s with the new shirt?” a guard calls to Ken. “What do you think this is, Miami Vice?” Ken says the other day he was wearing a peach shirt and they didn’t like that either. “That wasn’t peach,” the guard calls back. “It was pink.”

Ken leaves the prison for the office building on the other side of the perimeter around 1 o’clock, the hottest part of the day, the iron door closing behind him. There are 200 prisoners on this side of the fence, in the Minimum Security Facility. The MSF is for people sent to prison for a couple of months, caught with small amounts of drugs or repeat driving under the influence offenders.

The wind is slow and warm across the Mojave when I leave the prison. In the distance are turbines and the wrinkled foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It’s an hour and 10 minutes to Hollywood. There is a sign for a future veterans’ home on a large lot, then a facility for illegal immigrants being prepared for deportation. The space out here is cheap, handsome and far from view. The landscape is filled with dark squares, nearly all of them prepping for development. It won’t be long before Highway 14 becomes another choked thoroughfare, and the last of the county is consumed by the city and its endless network of linked suburbs.

In early 2005, while visiting Alonza, Janice witnesses a drug arrest in the visiting area of the Lancaster prison. Something in the force of the action snaps her, and Janice experiences her first panic attack. “Are you okay?” Alonza asks his mother.

She tells her son she can’t come by herself anymore. She visits twice more with her youngest son, Phillip, then doesn’t visit for four months, despite living only 90 minutes from the facility. At the end of June, she receives a letter from an inmate explaining that Alonza has asked him to write to her if there is an emergency. “You need to check on your son,” he writes. “Something bad happen to him.”

When Janice tries to see Alonza, she learns he is in a solitary cell in Administrative Segregation. Time has to be reserved to meet with the inmate in a special glass-separated enclosure. Appointments must be made on the Friday before the visit. The first time, she calls too late. The second and third times, she is unable to get through. She leaves messages. In the middle of July, she receives this note:

Dear Mom,

This is your son Alonza hoping and praying that you’re in the best of health even though I am not. I am in the hole because I was raped by my celly and they’re doing an investigation. I need you to come and see me so I can give you details on what’s going to happen to me.

I just want you to realize how scared, confused, and frightened I am. First off I don’t know whether or not he had any diseases. And since I told on him I’m considered a snitch and any of his gang friends that see me has to kill me so I’ll be forced to go to protective custody or die. Today is Friday. I hope that you come to see me tomorrow so I can tell you how it went down in person.

He’s back here too. I can hear him talk to his friends, calling me a snitch. Saying he’s going to kill me if he ever sees me, or one of his homeboys from East Coast Crips will kill me. It’s driving me crazy. My mental state of mind is shattered. I just don’t know what to do. But one thing I do know is that you’ll come through as always. I just want to hug you and hear you say that everything is going to be OK. Even though I know it is not.

No matter what happens to me just know that I love my family more than anything. I also pray to Jesus to save me and to get me through this and he talks back. He says this is what has to happen sometimes to get people to believe that God is real. He tells me he loves me and that he’s here for me through thick and thin.

—Alonza 14

Alonza Rydell Thomas Jr. is now 20 years old. He is scheduled for release February 14, 2013.

Stephen Elliott, a ward of the state of Illinois from ages 14 to 21, is the author of four novels, including Happy Baby (MacAdam/Cage) — a Village Voice and book of the year. He lives in San Francisco. His Web site is

1 The People v. David Foster SC214A

2 The People v. Alonza Thomas SC081072A

3 Wright, Rossi and Daly, 1983 and 1991

4 Several articles were written prior to the passage of the act stating that juveniles would now be eligible for the death penalty. However, Cal. Pen. Code Section 190.5 states, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the death penalty shall not be imposed upon any person who is under the age of 18 at the time of the commission of the crime.” Neelum Arya, at the Youth Law Center, asserts that this is one of the reasons Proposition 21 is so confusing: Not all of the provisions affect all juveniles, or all adults. The name of the bill is particularly misleading, since most voters believed the bill only affected juveniles.

5 Body Count, Simon & Schuster, 1996

6 Professor Wilson, now at Pepperdine, did not return multiple requests to clarify whether he ever supported Proposition 21 and whether he supports it now.

7 In 2003, the last year for which data is available, 20 kids were tried in adult court for petty theft, 16 for alcohol-related offenses, 10 for disturbing the peace and eight for vandalism.

8 Mother Jones, January 15, 2000

9 Report of the Inspector General, State of California, Tehachapi Youth Offender Program

10 When Alonza entered corrections, he had finished the 10th grade. He made no progress toward a high school degree after entering prison.

11 According to prison files held at Lancaster, Alonza’s last day at Tehachapi was 7/31/03.

12 Vince Crittendon, prisoner No. C-57138. Requested his information be made public.

13 The prosecutor in that case, Matt Manger, testified on Alonza’s behalf in 2000, citing his cooperation in putting a violent felon behind bars.

14 Spelling and punctuation were corrected in the transcribing of this letter.


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