Home Education Policy Could juvenile detention centers look like college campuses?

Could juvenile detention centers look like college campuses?

California’s juvenile justice system is at a crossroads, with state-run youth prisons shutting down in less than two years. Many of the 3,600 youth held in county-run juvenile halls, camps and ranches are former public school students like Kent Mendoza, who was incarcerated when he was 15. He’s now part of a growing movement to reimagine juvenile detention facilities and the education provided in them.

Transcript:

Anne Vasquez:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, executive director at EdSource. California’s juvenile justice system is at a crossroads. It’s state run youth prisons are shutting down in less than two years thanks to legislation signed into law last year by governor Gavin Newsom. Counties can no longer send young people to those prisons as the state seeks to reform a system that currently houses more than 3,600 youth in juvenile halls, camps, and ranches. Many of those in the system are former public school students like Kent Mendoza, who was incarcerated when he was 15. He’s now part of a growing movement to re-imagine juvenile halls and camps. He wishes they were more like college campus.

Kent Mendoza:

I’m a million dollar youth. That’s at least a million dollars that the system spent on my incarceration for a whole five years. And what did I get out of that? Trauma. Pain. You know, all these scars. Where it could have been degrees, it could have been… I probably wrote my own book by now.

Anne Vasquez:

What role can education play in California’s juvenile justice system? And how can reform change the lives of young people? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee Stavely:

Kent Mendoza’s family immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico when he was six. He felt lonely and disconnected and he struggled in school. He never learned how to read until he was in eighth grade.

Kent Mendoza:

I used to see kids that knew how to read it. And I was the only one that didn’t know how to read. So to me that always messed me up mentally as a kid. And on top of that, just imagine, I don’t know how to read. People are making fun of me. I don’t even want to read. It’s a shame, shame, shame, shame, and embarrassment as an immigrant kid. And then you didn’t even know how to speak English. So you’re even more embarrassed. And then you don’t have a father. So to me, all that really is a combination of feelings that were just in my mind, messing with me and my psychological, right?

Zaidee Stavely:

When it was 14 he found a group of other teens that were going through many of the same things. They were in a gang.

Kent Mendoza:

They were just like me. They were all immigrants. They all were living only with their mother. They had no fathers in their lives. And they all were from Mexico, El Salvador, or Guatemala. And they didn’t know how to speak English. And all were the kids that people would, like, try to mess up, like punk or something. Right. But then eventually we revolted like what the hell? So we ended up finding ways to fill in that gap that we missing. Our dad gaps. Or we feeling dumb. Oh, well, you know what? All these people feel the same way.

Zaidee Stavely:

The trouble he got into was small at first. Ditching school, smoking marijuana, a little graffiti.

Kent Mendoza:

I was just getting arrested for little things, you know, at first. And you know, those things eventually ended up becoming worse over time. But I think it was just, you know, in and out in the juvenile hall. And my mom coming to pick me up at the police station or stuff like that. It wasn’t like…for things that any young kid that has no proper guidance would be getting in trouble to, right?. But then obviously as you start progressing in that type of lifestyle, the crimes and offenses become more serious and the penalties become harsher.

Zaidee Stavely:

Kent ended up arrested and sentenced for robbery when he was 15 years old. He spent 18 months on one sentence. But he says he didn’t learn much or get inspired to change while incarcerated. And when he got out, he kept getting in trouble. Just a month later, he was arrested on new charges and detained once again. In total, he spent five years incarcerated and didn’t get out until he was 20. Today Kent is 28 and he’s the manager of advocacy and community organizing for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. He works to change how juvenile justice is set up. He wants there to be more rehabilitation. He wants people to believe in kids’ ability to change. And he wants better education. Inside the juvenile halls and camps where Kent was, he had school, but this is how he remembers it.

Kent Mendoza:

To me. I felt like in school, it was more of a place where everything bad happened, you know, all the tension the fights, all that. So whenever I was in juvenile hall, in central juvenile hall or, you know I didn’t want to be in class, you know, I wanted to get out of there. Why? Because the teachers kind of didn’t know what the heck they were doing, or they were just easy to push around, you know? And, and what I saw was that all they did was give out packages. Be like, oh here read this package and copy it to another page. And, you know, I never really saw like no quality in the education. And if anything, it’s like, I feel like the teachers would just I don’t think they was not passionate.

Zaidee Stavely:

And on top of all of that, he had to worry about violence.

Kent Mendoza:

Every time I was in class, you know, I had to deal with people wanting to fight me. You know, I had to deal with people wanting to dis my gang and… And it was like headaches. I’m literally just having headaches all day. And so I really didn’t get anything out of any education while I was incarcerated.

Zaidee Stavely:

One experience Kent had there showed him that maybe it wasn’t just him, that maybe if he was given opportunities to tap into what he was interested in, he could even enjoy learning. A group came in to hold a debate about cloning,

Kent Mendoza:

And you have to pick a side like pros and cons, you know. And I remember to me, that was an amazing experience because when I learned about the cloning and biology, I became nerd. And I was literally, I was a gang member at this point. I literally was curious about this stuff. I’m like, what is cloning? And I started asking my teacher and I told my teacher to let me be the debater. And then they literally had a debate in the gym, you know? And I never experienced those types of things, but I think like those are the types of things that we need to be seeing more of, you know. It was a glimpse of quality experience of something like that. So to me, that was something that I remember that I still recall to this day that I learned about biology, those things, you know, they… Something in that time tapped into my curiosity.

Zaidee Stavely:

This is Education Beat getting to the heart of California schools. I’m Zaidee Stavely. This week, educating incarcerated youth.

Zaidee Stavely:

Kent Mendoza is a passionate advocate for reforming the juvenile justice system in California. I met him through my colleague, Betty Marquez Rosales, who is starting a new beat on juvenile justice and education at EdSource. Hi Betty.

Betty Marquez Rosales:

Hi, Zaidee.

Zaidee Stavely:

Betty you recently wrote about how California is trying to overhaul completely their juvenile justice system and some of the challenges. And so what I understood from the story is that basically California passed a law that requires all youth prisons to be shut down by 2023. And therefore counties will no longer be able to send young people to prisons. Rather they have to house them in their own facilities, which are usually, you know, juvenile halls or camps. Right? But some of the ideas to create these more home like environments haven’t played out. Can you explain what’s going on?

Betty Marquez Rosales:

Right. So Senate bill 823 does exactly what you just mentioned. And so one of the issues which Los Angeles county is certainly experiencing right now is zeroing in on which facility might be the least restrictive in terms of not focusing on punitive measures or having a system of punishment. And instead focusing on it being more home-like and focusing on care and rehabilitation. The large problem here is that many of the facilities that currently exist at county levels, they were created before these ideas really started going more into the mainstream. The idea of providing rehabilitation for young people who’ve been charged with committing crimes versus having a sort of more punitive approach.

Zaidee Stavely:

And it sounds like there were two camps in Los Angeles County that were being considered. But so far nobody has been moved into those camps. Is that right?

Betty Marquez Rosales:

Right. That idea received quite a bit of community opposition because there were fears from local residents that housing this group of young people near their homes might lead to a potential rise in crime. There was concern over lack of transparency in choosing those camps. And so that idea was scrapped. And after some more back and forth, they decided on Campus Kilpatrick. It’s been around for some time, but it was reopened in 2017 under a different design. The idea really aligns with the intent of Senate bill 823 in that young people, rather than being housed in sort of these separate dormitories and units, they’re housing groups of, I believe, eight to twelve at a time. And they receive group therapy.

Zaidee Stavely:

Have people been sent to that camp yet?

Betty Marquez Rosales:

The issue right now is that while that back and forth was happening and while a temporary and or permanent location was chosen, they’ve actually been incarcerated at Barry J. Nidorf, which in September a regulatory agency found that specific juvenile hall to be, quote, unsuitable for the confinement of minors. Since it was founded nine years ago, it’s the first time that the board has issued such a finding. And it included both of the juvenile halls that are in LA County. And one of them is where about 20 young people who prior to Senate bill 823 would have been sent to the state, they’ve actually been incarcerated at Barry J. Nidorf. Actually Kent spent some time at Barry J. Nidorf when he was younger.

Zaidee Stavely:

So let’s talk a little bit about Barry J. Nidorf. So there was also a complaint filed in California superior court in January because of a two-year US department of justice investigation. And what did that investigation find?

Betty Marquez Rosales:

The investigation found that the juvenile hall staff, they were using excessive force, young people in the juvenile hall were not being provided with appropriate bedding, with appropriate access to bathrooms, they were denying youth access to those kinds of basic needs. And they were also failing to provide the legally required education services.

Zaidee Stavely:

For those people who are still in the state youth prisons, what kind of education is being offered to them?

Betty Marquez Rosales:

So each of the state youth prisons have a high school. And these high schools they also offer some vocational courses, some community college courses, depending on the age. And so while those sort of education programs exist, their test results offer some insight into the level of achievement that they can attain while being incarcerated. I’ll share one one statistic that really stood out to me. In 2018, none of the students at any of the three correctional facilities at the state level, none of them scored proficient in math on the state’s smarter, balanced assessment exam. And then this is data from the California Department of Education. And in reading at one of the high schools in the correctional facilities, 8% of students scored proficient in reading. And at the other two schools, it was 3% of students who scored proficient in reading. And so that offers some insight into the opportunities that, you know, young students have while incarcerated.

Zaidee Stavely:

When Kent was incarcerated, what made a really big difference was that he met a mentor, someone who had been through similar experiences, who visited juvenile halls every weekend to talk with the kids inside. That person gave Kent hope.

Kent Mendoza:

All my life I felt outcast. I felt lonely. And the reason why I did some of the things that I did is because as an immigrant, you feel lonely and outcast. Like you’re incapable of things. You know, your self esteem is very low. When you have people they start believing in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself, to me, that’s really what started keeping me hopeful and planting that seed in me. And to me, it was just like literally having people that don’t give up on you. And to me, it was a mentor that was there from the day that I got locked up until the day I got out. And they was able to see me and never gave up on me. And then not only that, but through that person, I have extended my support system. And I guess just feeling valued, knowing that even though I’m in this place, there’s people that are waiting for me to come home and to support me.

Zaidee Stavely:

What stood out to you about Kent or what made you think that his story is powerful?

Betty Marquez Rosales:

Kent is really passionate about having credible messengers in youth prisons, and having credible messengers really be connected to anybody who might be involved in the juvenile justice system.

Zaidee Stavely:

By credible messenger do you mean somebody who the young person will be able to trust and believe when they guide them or give them advice?

Betty Marquez Rosales:

Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s someone who maybe they’ve had similar experiences in the past. And so that really stood out because he shared his story of spending time in facilities that were not conducive to rehabilitation. Instead, what has changed really came down to a credible messenger who was in his life years before he decided to turn things around. And that person was also there the day that he walked out of the last prison that he was in.

Zaidee Stavely:

Kent made his own way to educate himself. He read books that he found in the library, not because they were assigned to him in school. He read about Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, and he read a book called Earning Freedom by Michael Santos about getting through a long prison term. He did graduate from high school while he was in juvenile hall, but then he felt he had no way of continuing his education further. Kent has a vision for how he would like juvenile halls and camps to look. He wants them to look and function more like college campuses.

Kent Mendoza:

You know, when we look at the carceral systems, the way they’re set up, the way the facilities are built, they all look like jails. They all look not welcome. And they all look very depressing You know, they don’t provide a sense of happiness or fun. And I know that it’s a place of supposed to hold young people accountable. And also at the same time, when we talking about holding people accountable, we can’t forget that they’re young people. So I think that to ensure that we’re really going to help young people, we need to create facilities or places that are not jail-like type of places, you know. Like what if like this place is look more like a college campus type of environment where, you know, the kid that is probably there because he robbed something, maybe he’s going to do nine months there, but maybe in those nine months, maybe he’s going to be doing a trade program at the same time. At the same time that he’s to healthy relationships workshops, at the same time that he’s going through a credible messenger trainings, where he’s learning from people like me, who’ve been there that can be guiding them on life experiences or anything, education. They might be knocking out a trade at the same time.

Kent Mendoza:

Maybe by the time they’re done, they’re already certified in cutting hair or something. You know, I think that we shouldn’t be building systems or creating places where it’s just for the young people to kill time. We need to be building the young people’s competencies. So when they come home, whether they’re 17, 18, 19, that they’re already going to be either continue the path in the education or in trades or contributing economically.

Zaidee Stavely:

It makes Kent wonder, what would it have been like for him, if his experience inside had been different? If it had been like a college campus with all the support and opportunities that exist there? What if the money spent on incarcerating Kent had been spent on educating him?

Kent Mendoza:

I’m a million dollar youth. That’s at least a million dollars that the system spent on my incarceration for a whole five years. And what did I get out of that? Trauma. Pain. Solitary confinement. Pepper spray. You know, all these scars. Where it could have been degrees. It could have been… I probably wrote my own book by now. You know, there’s things that we could be building off and we’re not even looking at those basic things that are literally right in front of us.

Zaidee Stavely:

Kent also, is there something that schools and teachers can do before students get involved in the juvenile justice system? Is there something that you think that your teachers or schools could have done to help prevent you from joining a gang and from, you know, getting involved and then having to go back and all of that?

Kent Mendoza:

I feel that the problem with schools, teachers, faculty folks, and people that run schools is sometimes they don’t understand the young people that are going through this stuff. Like if I’m going to class and I’m showing up high, if I’m showing up mad, if I’m not doing my homework, why aren’t you not questioning? Why aren’t you checking up on the kid? Why aren’t you like… Maybe it’s not the teacher job, but at the end of the day, you’re a teacher and you’re supposed to be helping the young person. So it kind of is. Maybe the teachers, the faculty needs to start thinking of other ways of addressing this. If you have a kid who has disabilities, we do things to address those disability issues. If we have a young person that doesn’t know how to English, we try to provide them an ESL teacher, or they put them in those classes.

Kent Mendoza:

There’s ways that we do try to adapt other young people. But when we talk about kids that are probably going through trauma, maybe, you know, they don’t know that, you know, I’m missing my dad. And as a kid, you’re lacking that, that piece. That’s a big, important piece in your life. So I think that there has to be a piece where student teachers, are just trained, or maybe they bring people like me that can teach the teachers. Another layer of kind of a training to the staff. If you’re training them how to work with sheriffs or probation officers, then train them how to work with community members,that they understand these young people. Bring credible messengers to school, let them work there. There’s a lot of people that went through the carceral system, they change the life, and their educators too. Maybe these people also need to be working in this place. It’s like, if we see a young kid struggling, we need to feel, how do we support a young person, not just punish him and get him in trouble because he’s not doing his homework, but why is he struggling? You know? And I just feel like that’s the solution, having more understanding of these young people and having people that can teach teachers about this stuff.

Zaidee Stavely:

Betty, I’m really excited that you’re on this beat. Do you want to share any of the stories that you’re planning for the next few months?

Betty Marquez Rosales:

Some of the stories that we really want to focus on is diving deeper into this question of education at both the state youth prisons and at county probation camps, county juvenile halls. What are the opportunities that young students are being offered? What other tests results, what are their experiences in whichever facility they may be in? And really when it comes down to it, the priority with covering juvenile justice, it comes down to sharing the experiences of the people who’ve been in any of the facilities and better understanding those experiences to be able to share them with our readers.

Zaidee Stavely:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools, a production of EdSource. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special, thanks to Kent Mendoza, Betty Marquez, Rosales, and our director Anne Vasquez. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the California Wellness Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and don’t forget to subscribe.

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