December 10 marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As we call on our leaders to renew our commitments to universal justice and dignity, Californians must examine how we treat our youth. California runs one of the worst, most expensive youth prison systems in the nation. As we celebrate a document proclaiming that childhood is “entitled to special care and assistance,” policymakers must seize this opportunity to establish an effective, comprehensive system of care for troubled youth that fulfills our human rights obligations.
The Division of Juvenile Justice (“DJJ”) is notorious for guard beatings, preventable suicides, filthy conditions, and nonexistent programming. Young people held in its warehouse-like prisons regularly suffer violence, abuse and neglect. DJJ costs over $436 million—equaling an outrageous $241,400 per youth. Even more outrageous is the DJJ’s 72% recidivism rate—among the worst in the nation. In 2004, California settled a lawsuit against DJJ for inhumane conditions. Four years later, the judge has found that conditions are still deplorable and DJJ is in gross violation of the settlement.
Youth prison conditions not only violate the court settlement—they are rife with human rights violations. Hilda Montes knows this all too well. Her son, Emilio, has been in and out of DJJ for four years. One Mother’s Day, Hilda received a phone call at 9pm from a DJJ doctor. Her heart almost stopped as the doctor said that Emilio had attempted suicide that morning. He was alive, but in critical condition. He’d tried to hang himself. Frantic, Hilda immediately tried to see her son. DJJ staff prevented her from seeing Emilio for four nightmarish days.
Article 5 of the Universal Declaration prohibits torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading … punishment.” The DJJ is degrading at best, and torturous at worst. Youth suffer medical neglect, excessive isolation, and unchecked aggression from guards. When Haydee Amaya visited her son, Luis,* at Preston youth prison in Ione in November, she was horrified. Luis’s face was covered in what looked like hundreds of severely inflamed mosquito bites leaking pus. Luis told her he’d been maced a week earlier. The guards had refused to allow him and other youth to wash the irritant off properly. So the young men suffered chemical burns from their faces to their chests. Haydee frantically contacted guards, nurses, doctors, Luis’s parole agent, and even Preston’s superintendent. No one has responded to Haydee’s requests, even for simple information. Instead, prison guards have harassed Luis for his mother’s involvement with Books Not Bars. Now he is too frightened of retaliation to tell Haydee what he’s experiencing.
According to the court order, DJJ prisons are still marked by “unsafe conditions, antiquated facilities, … [and] hours on end with nothing for youth to do.” Youth in California prisons languish for all but three hours a day in solitary lockup. Those with mental health needs receive care described by the court as “toxic.” What’s more, youth of color are disproportionately shipped to DJJ prisons—making up a staggering 90% of the population—in direct contradiction of the Declaration’s Article 7, which holds that “[a]ll are equal before the law.”
A better way exists: other states have shifted their resources to programs that help youth turns their lives around—at a fraction of the cost. Missouri’s system of secure, home-like therapeutic centers for high-risk youth is hailed nationwide for its effectiveness. Likewise, Washington’s use of diverse alternatives saves the state money while successfully rehabilitating youth.
California cannot afford to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a broken system that is incapable of fixing itself. In the spirit of human rights, policymakers must invest in a comprehensive system of care and rehabilitation for our youth. The state must scrap DJJ’s obsolete, abusive prisons and establish Missouri-like centers that respect human rights and effectively treat youth close to their families. As we denounce human rights violations committed abroad, let us consider our own backyard. We must build a California that lifts our youth up instead of locking them down.
Sumayyah Waheed esq. serves as Policy Director of Books Not Bars, a campaign of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. For more information please visit www.ellabakercenter.org