Surviving Juvenile Justice in Los Angeles

From NPR member station KQED in San Francisco, Rob Schmitz reports on one young man who faces obstacles in Los Angeles' deeply troubled juvenile justice system. Note: This segment contains language that some might find objectionable.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

The juvenile jails of Los Angeles are legendary, and a few years ago, a federal investigation found them deeply flawed.

From NPR member station KQED, Rob Schmitz views the system through the eyes of one young man inside.

ROB SCHMITZ: Timothy Wright's(ph) anger is written in a raw, pink, jagged scar across the inside of his left wrist. Timothy says about a month ago, he was acting up in class and a guard became angry with him.

Mr. TIMOTHY WRIGHT (Jailed Juvenile, Los Angeles): So he comes up off his, you know, and he starts calling me all kinds of names, you know, you bitch, and you little girl. So we ended up staring at each other's face or whatever, and he pushed me.

SCHMITZ: Timothy says moments later he swung at the guard, missed, and instead plunged his fist through a window. The result: Thirteen stitches, a puffy bracelet he compulsively scratches. Timothy's 18 years old. He has a thoughtful, quiet face hidden behind glasses.

As he sits in a bare cell monitored by security guards, he's polite, he's curious and it's clear he's done a lot of thinking about the time he spent at L.A.'s Central Juvenile Hall. He regrets throwing that punch, but he felt the guard was acting like one of the inmates instead of like a staff member.

Mr. TIMOTHY: Because all this does, all this place really does, it just makes you even more angry. So really a lot of the kids they think about, I want to kill that staff member. I want to shoot him. I want beat him up. And that's not what we're supposed to be thinking. The staff members are supposed to be here to help rebuild the (unintelligible).

SCHMITZ: Timothy's complaint isn't new. In a 2003 report, federal investigators said the probation officers at L.A.'s three juvenile halls frequently used abusive language with the inmates. Yelling at them, cursing them, at times making fun of their family, sexual orientation or mental illness.

Mr. DAVE GURKENICH(ph) (Los Angeles County Probation Department): Change doesn't occur overnight. You know, it took years to get into this situation and it's going to probably take years to get out.

SCHMITZ: Dave Gurkenich is with L.A.'s probation department. He's working on implementing changes in the county's juvenile halls in the wake of the federal investigation. Gurkenich says the halls have added 270 positions and have given additional training to staff to help them deal with mentally troubled adolescents.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

SCHMITZ: It's just before dinner at juvenile hall and around 50 boys, all dressed blue shirts and black pants, chat and play dominoes. Timothy is in a separate room, talking to a therapist about controlling his anger. This kind of attention is part of the change brought by the federal investigation.

More therapists have been hired to handle the range of mental illnesses that plague around half of the kids in juvenile hall.

Timothy's not sure where his violent temper comes from, but he knows it's a problem. This is the third time he's been locked up for it. Over the past few years he's joined a gang, sold drugs and was arrested for robbery, a crime he doesn't admit to but he says he deserves to be locked up anyway for the pain he's caused others, especially his mother who still visits him regularly.

Mr. TIMOTHY: Stole, robbed her house, you know, called her all kinds of bitches and oh I hate you, I hope you die. And I'm sure she spent many a nights in her room crying because of the things that I've said or things that I'm doing.

SCHMITZ: Timothy realized how bad things had become when, one day at juvenile hall, he attended a writing class offered by the group Inside Out Writers. The instructor asked him to write a comparison between life now versus ten years ago.

Mr. TIMOTHY: So I'm thinking, like, well, you know, really my life was just a whole lot better. You know what I'm saying? I wasn't in jail, never even thought about jail, never even knew what juvenile hall was. You know what I'm saying? Everything was just better for me. I was happy, joyful, had a great relationship with my mom, you know? So that topic, it really struck something inside of me. That was the first thing that told me, hey, I'm not going to go back, you know? Hey, I'm going to go back to being that little 8-year-old Timothy, you know?

SCHMITZ: That was the day Timothy started writing. He wrote about his childhood, his family, his girlfriend, his gangbanging peers. He filled notebooks with poems about everything that was bothering him as he bounced from one juvenile hall to another, finally ending up in a camp.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) small of the back, head straight, feet shoulder-length apart. You're not moving around.

SCHMITZ: A month after doing time at juvenile hall, Timothy stands at attention with other minors at Camp Smith in Lancaster, 75 miles away from L.A.

Unidentified Man #1: If you guys don't like line-up, we can always find another position for you.

SCHMITZ: Young men and women arrive here after spending weeks or months at juvenile hall where they stay during trial. A judge has sentenced Timothy to nine months in the camp system. The camp's aim to teach minors skills they'll need once they're released. Camp Smith specializes in adolescents like Timothy who have trouble controlling their anger.

Mr. TIMOTHY: As of now, the staff are much, much better. The staff are more on their Ps and Qs and act like staff.

Unidentified Man #1: Hands on knees, back straight, chest out, chin up.

SCHMITZ: Timothy says the camp staff is strict but fair, a big improvement from Central Juvenile Hall. Another plus is the camp school. He says back at Central Hall his teacher had him reading books at around a fourth grade reading level. The problem is he's tested above a 12th grade level. His new teacher at camp has assigned to read Chaucer. Timothy's new favorite poem is Beowulf. He's fascinated with the character of Grendel, the poem's monstrous antagonist.

Mr. TIMOTHY: So I see him as a person, as a real person. You know, because there are people that have attitudes like that. I think that he really gave him human characteristics and just put it in a monster form because some humans are monsters.

SCHMITZ: Humans like him. He recently wrote about this in a poem he titled Trapped.

Mr. TIMOTHY: Trapped within walls of my own flesh, armed with nothing more than a hammer and chisel, I scope for your eyes to see who I long to be...

SCHMITZ: In the poem, Timothy addresses the old him, a boy he describes as a kid who rips his own flesh off his face, transforming himself into a monstrosity.

Mr. TIMOTHY: I embrace others like me, those who rid themselves of them. Can't be yourself and who you're expected to be. Wounds of transformation leave me hideous and alone...

SCHMITZ: Soon the boy in the poem realizes he's made a horrible mistake so he tries to glue himself back together.

Mr. TIMOTHY: Armed with nothing more than a Band-aid and glue, I paste on and patch up what's left of the true me. As the glue dries and patches heal, I am left with many scars. My burden has returned, only its bearable now. The scars will remain for the rest of my days, but I know I look better now than when I was you.

SCHMITZ: Timothy says the poem speaks for itself. He's turned himself into a monster, befriended others like him. And now he's trying to put himself back together again, trying to find himself, much like thousands of other young men and women in the county's complex juvenile detention system.

As he closes his notebook there's a hint he's starting to figure it out. Carefully inscribed in blue ink across the cover is the title Timothy Wright: Thoughts of a Poet.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.

Unidentified Man #1: Back straight, chest out, chin up. (Unintelligible) sit up, and up, and up. Take a seat.

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