RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Across the country, there are efforts to close outdated and dangerous incarceration facilities for juveniles. But even in places with model juvenile halls, counties often struggle to meet the minimum standards. Youth Radio producer Brett Myers takes us inside one of these challenged detention centers. And a note - throughout this story, the youths' last names are omitted to protect their juvenile records.
BRETT MYERS, BYLINE: In 2007, Alameda County, Calif., built a new juvenile justice center, a $176 million complex of courtrooms, law offices and this place.
CHRISTIAN MUNOZ: This is essentially where all of the people that do the heavy lifting come in.
MYERS: Christian Munoz is taking me inside juvenile hall, where he works as superintendent. He's having trouble keeping the facility staffed.
MUNOZ: We survive on overtime. It's that bad.
MYERS: The inmate headcount here is the lowest it's been in five years. Yet overtime for guards is more than double what it was five years ago, according to public salary reports. Just minutes into showing me around, an announcement squawks across Munoz's walkie-talkie.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through walkie-talkie) If you're interested and available to work, please give me a call in the juniors-seniors office.
MYERS: The evening shift starts in less than an hour, and Munoz is short six people. He says this happens all the time. There are lots of reasons for the staffing shortage - guards retiring, moving over to the adult system or filing for workers' comp.
MUNOZ: Because it's difficult to run a lemonade stand like that.
MYERS: And this is, like, a stressful lemonade stand to run.
MUNOZ: Yeah. You know, anytime you're talking about supervising human lives, it's an enormous amount of responsibility and liability for us as well.
MYERS: I'm standing in Unit 1. It's two stories high with 15 cells on each level. Three guards are on duty, two are working the upper and lower decks, shuffling kids back and forth from their cells to the showers. And they're doing room checks, looking for contraband.
RUDY: (Yelling) You only leave 15 minutes. You can't (unintelligible).
MYERS: There's a commotion. A teen named Rudy is yelling. He just returned to his cell to discover that the cookies and snacks he had stashed away were confiscated. As punishment for having food in his cell, he got docked 15 minutes of rec time, and he's upset, refusing to go back inside.
BONNIE LACY: Rudy. Wait a minute; let me go get him.
MYERS: Bonnie Lacy is one of the guards working Unit 1. She walks towards Rudy, making eye contact.
LACY: Fifteen minutes for me. Thank you.
MYERS: Fifteen minutes for me, she tells Rudy. With that, Rudy turns around, steps into his cell and closes the door. The superintendent and several guards told me they prefer to talk through conflicts like this with kids, but incidents can escalate quickly. According to county records obtained by Youth Radio, guards used pepper spray 147 times last year. The kicker - 90 percent of state-run juvenile correctional agencies don't allow guards to carry pepper spray. But here, with guards working an average of 30 hours of overtime per week, there's been an increase in the use of force on juvenile inmates, like guards performing takedowns or handcuffing inmates. The department calls these acts use of physical and mechanical restraints, and that number has nearly tripled in the last five years. Supervisor Ray Colon has been working for Alameda County Juvenile Hall for 25 years.
RAY COLON: You know, you've got just a couple of staff watch a number of kids, and things happen.
MYERS: During waking hours, the state mandates a minimum of one guard for every 10 kids in detention. But Colon says...
COLON: The kids don't always get the services they should get because we're running short. They spend more time in their room, which is unfortunate, but it's the reality of not having the staff to complete the duties we need to do.
MYERS: When they're short on guards, supervisors sometimes run what they call split recs - basically dividing recreation, exercise and dinner time in half. Fifteen kids come out while the other 15 remain in their cells. Eighteen-year-old Malik spent more than four months incarcerated in Alameda County Juvenile Hall. He says when young people are locked in their cells, tensions flare.
MALIK: Man, more fights, more attitudes. You know, they want to be out their rooms. I mean, if I know that I have a guaranteed hour of PE each day no matter what, like, I'm going to be angry if I can't get that.
MYERS: While conditions for both the inmates and the guards have gone down, the costs have not. On average, there are only about 150 kids at Alameda County Juvenile Hall at any given time, and it costs $48 million a year to detain them. For NPR News, I'm Brett Myers.
MONTAGNE: And that story was produced by Youth Radio as part of their juvenile justice series Unlocked.
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