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County rehabilitation camps absorbing California's young offenders

Tina Hayes School of Etiquette Class

California has been in an ongoing struggle trying to figure out how to deal with overcrowding in prisons. The problems extend to the Division of Juvenile Justice, where the state’s most serious young offenders are held. For youth from Alameda County, being sent to one of the DJJ facilities is one of the worst alternatives. They’re spread out all over the state, which means it can be hard to keep family connections, and complaints of abuse and unsafe conditions have dogged the system for more than a decade.

Those are some of the reasons why in 2012, Governor Jerry Brown proposed eliminating the Department of Juvenile Justice altogether. But it didn’t happen -- instead, the state shifted more responsibility for young offenders, and more of the cost, onto the counties. So these days, young people convicted of things like burglary and car-jacking are serving their sentences closer to home, in what are known as rehabilitation “camps.”

The camps are cheaper than DJJ—in 2012, they cost just under $100,000 per youth, versus $160,000 for a secure facility. But they’re not necessarily designed for serious offenders.

Lisa Hill, the Superintendent at Alameda County’s Camp Wilmont Sweeney, says the young men are often “traumatized” by the time they arrive at camp. “By the time we get them, so much has been set in motion,” she says. “And for us to stop that process will take longer than eight or nine months or a year.”

The young men she’s talking about are from 15-18 years old. Hill’s job is to keep them focused, their families engaged, and enrollment at the camp down. She’s doing all of this despite budget cuts, more violent youth, and a run-down facility that’s one of the oldest of its kind in California.

Welcome to camp

Inside an almost empty auditorium, a group of teenagers sit in a circle. As they go around, each one is asked to say something positive about someone else in the room. A teen wearing khaki pants and a dark shirt sits with arms folded, slouched in his chair, and looks to another boy sitting next to him. “I appreciate his smile, he has a great smile that lights up the room,” he says, looking at the floor.

The teachers congratulate him for participating and continue with the workshop. It’s part of these young people’s court-ordered programming here at Camp Sweeney.

From 8:30am to 2pm each day they meet in classrooms spread out in cabin-like buildings around the camp. The boys take classes on how to manage their anger, meet one on one with counselors, or sit in group circles like the one today, just practicing being nice.

It’s raining outside, and the boys who aren’t part of the group activity are play-fighting and feeling restless. One teen shouts, “Camp Sweeney sucks, but everyone here is so lovely!”

When the weather is like this and everyone’s inside, Lisa Hill says the kids can be a bit harder to manage. They get anxious, and unpredictable.  Hill also says that in the almost three years she’s been doing this, the types of cases coming to the camp have changed.

A young boy with round glasses, wearing the same khaki pants as the rest of the boys here, tells me about his charge. His voice is shaky. “What’s my charge? Burglary,” he says.

More serious offenders

A few years ago, a case like this would have gone to the Division of Juvenile Justice, but the state’s now trying to keep young men out of those facilities. It’s more cost effective to have them serve their sentences or do court-ordered rehabilitation in the counties where they were convicted. So young men with more serious records end up at Camp Sweeney.

“Definitely some of the kids here wouldn’t be here if the Youth Authority was still taking lower-level offenders,” says camp Superintendent Lisa Hill.

This worries Hill because Camp Sweeney isn’t a detention center. “There’s no fences, if they decide to run off, there’s no fences,” she says. “They don’t because they know that there will be a warrant.”

The camp is also short-staffed, and more violent offenders require more personnel with specific training and certification. Hill says she can’t afford those hires. So instead she keeps the numbers low. There are only 60 youth at the camp, even though it can accommodate up to 100.

One advantage of this is that it’s easier for Hill to get to know the kids—to make connections with them. When she walks through the courtyard the boys crowd around her, trying to get her attention. They hang on her shoulder, ask about their phone calls, and talk about a recent camping trip they all went on in the mountains. Hill listens, smiling.

“It was kind of scary,” says one of the teens, “ I thought a bear was going to come, it was cool though.”

Hill is like a mother figure here. She’s tall, and has a warm smile, but there’s something about her that makes you think it’s best to stay on her good side. She has children of her own; she’s been a probation officer, a Division Director, and a family therapist. Now as a Superintendent , her main focus is trying to give the kids a sense of stability. Today one of the teens is leaving camp, and he stops by Hill’s office to give her a hug. “How many hugs do I get before you go?” she beams, then notices the boy’s outfit. “Why you got on all that red?” she asks concerned about him possibly being involved in a gang.

The young man shrugs off the question and walks out to a car where his mom  is waiting to pick him up. Teens here earn rewards, called badges, by behaving well. Family visits home on the weekends come with a badge level called Metamorphosis, which takes about three and a half months to reach. They get additional visits if their parents come to the camp and participate in a weekly support clinic about parenting called Project Reconnect. Hill says as much as the kids, it’s the families she’s  trying to reach. And it’s her main challenge

“If you have a parent on crack you are going to get crack-level parenting,” she says. “There’s no sense in judging that parent, but you should be able to understand why that person is that way.”

A crumbling facility

I follow Hill inside the area where the boys sleep and shower. Camp Sweeney was built in 1957, and it shows. There are large grey trunks in the sleep area, next to lumpy blue cots. The toilets are right  across from each other in an open room. Nothing seems up to current standards. The walls are blank, except for the house rules.   

“Just the fact that they are showering wide open here, that’s why they leave, because it’s too intimidating,” she says.

The average amount of time boys stay at the camp is eight months.  But Hill’s seen a handful leave earlier, usually within the first week they arrive.

“This kid left because he wanted to be close to his girlfriend. So he probably thought,  I got to get to camp then if I get to camp I can run off to her,” she says. “Even though he had just got here, that’s something we should have immediately focused on.”

Though they can run off, most young men don’t. Not completing the program could mean doing more time somewhere else in California, or even out of state.

Camp rules

The camp rules are strict. iPods aren’t even allowed because they get stolen. Hill says it has to be strict to prepare the young men to go back to their families with some structure. But they also want them to have some fun. In the afternoon, camp counselor John Young tries to rally them to play baseball. “I spent three days just going over baseball,” he says. “They want to learn, they want to get better, but no one has ever taught them.”

He says it’s not easy getting them excited about being a part of a team when most of them haven’t been in school long enough to join one.

Even with the staff trying hard, the facilities just aren’t adequate. Recently the state gave the county $35 million towards constructing a new camp that will replace this one. It’s scheduled for completion by 2017 and will house 30 girls and 125 boys in two separate areas. And it will be secure. The number of serious offenders is expected to go up. But it will still keep these youth closer to home.

Click the audio player above to listen to the story. 

Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.