Michael, a black teenager who was recently arrested for arson, is trying his best to offer service with a smile. It’s lunchtime in the Delta Room, the no-frills cafeteria for staff and visitors at the state juvenile prison complex in Stockton, California. Michael (not his real name) is wearing a plastic apron over the standard-issue uniform: white T-shirt, blue slacks. Like the other waiters and chef’s helpers milling around, he is learning food service through the vocational training program at the nearby DeWitt Nelson correctional facility. He diligently takes our orders, making a point to repeat them before heading back to the kitchen. A minute later he returns with bad news about the French fries. “Um, the fryer’s broken,” he says.

We settle for chips with our white-bread sandwiches. Over lunch parole board commissioner Joyce Arredondo, an old-school disciplinarian who has worked with at-risk youth for many years, explains her approach to juvenile justice. “Just because they’re juveniles doesn’t mean their crimes are any less heinous,” she says. “Some of these kids are offending as early as 9, 10, 11. We need to hit ’em hard the first time, and give them time to mature, to internalize it. It hurts, but that’s how it goes.”

Yes, it hurts. And it’s failing. The state is mandated to treat, train and rehabilitate its youthful offenders, but in reality the correctional system is making matters worse for them. A state-commissioned report released in April found that adversarial relations between staff and youth (commonly called wards) are perpetuating a violent, anti-therapeutic culture. Education and treatment consistently take a back seat to crisis management. Poor training, limited resources and overstuffed housing units prevent staff from providing the required mental-health and counseling services–and when these programs are offered, they’re sorely deficient. Even the facilities are overdue for repair. “This is not a system that needs tinkering around the edges,” the report concluded. “This is a system that is broken almost everywhere you look.”

The numbers bear this out. The cost per year to house and treat each of the more than 3,000 wards in state confinement is a pricey $115,129, a startling figure when you consider how little the system has to show for it. Lengths of stay are nearly triple the national average, and the recidivism rate is sky-high (some estimates run up to 90 percent). It should come as no surprise that in April the adult side of the California correctional system projected a spike of 23,000 more adult felons over the next five years. This expected rise can be attributed in part to population increase, but certainly the widespread failures on the juvenile side play a role, as well. Rather than create the opportunity for troubled teens to return to their communities as law-abiding adults, the state is preparing them for a life in confinement.

“I understand people’s impatience with a system that’s been deteriorating for more than ten years,” says Bernard Warner, head of the Division of Juvenile Justice (formerly known as the California Youth Authority). “I think people want to see change, and we’re going to make it happen. But it takes time and consistent leadership.” Working with a team of national experts, Warner is developing a comprehensive plan that, he believes, will realign the state’s priorities toward rehabilitation. But by now many advocates harbor grave doubts about the state’s ability to implement serious reform.

The prognosis wasn’t always so grim. In fact, when the California Youth Authority was formed in 1941, it was regarded as a progressive alternative to the national standard. The CYA was the first juvenile corrections system in the United States to identify the specific needs of each ward upon intake and to tailor treatment regimens around those needs. California also pioneered the use of forestry camps and community programs as alternatives to incarceration. Other states began to follow suit, and in time the CYA became the new benchmark for handling juvenile delinquents.

By the late 1970s, however, some researchers had become skeptical about the effectiveness of treatment as a panacea, and legislators were growing frustrated with its cost. In the ’80s the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) emerged as a political powerhouse and began pushing for jobs programs and higher wages for prison guards. To strengthen its hand, the union presented the CYA as a dangerous place in need of bulked-up security, playing up societal fears of unredeemable “superpredators” lurking in our midst. Now one of the state’s most influential lobbies, the CCPOA has diverted a significant portion of the juvenile justice budget toward guards’ salaries. And a workforce of nominal “youth counselors” trained to handle adult criminals has, in turn, helped to restore a prisonized environment to juvenile facilities.

Nowhere has the influence of the CCPOA on juvenile corrections been more apparent than at N.A. Chaderjian, a quick-fix warehouse built in Stockton in 1991 to accommodate a surging population of young offenders. California is one of only four states in which lawbreakers can be classified as juveniles until the age of 25, and Chad, as it’s called, has historically been the site for the state’s oldest and most violent wards. Many of them are transferred for disruptions at other facilities, and some have already spent time in adult prison. Chad was modified to have a “softer” feel than a prison (a large lawn separates living units from the school), but its single-cell design sends a clear message: Staff safety trumps rehabilitation as a top priority. “We were told if we wanted something quickly, we should use the adult model,” says Norman Skonovd, a research specialist at the Division of Juvenile Justice. But, he adds, “when you have individual cells instead of an open-dorm setting, you lose staff interrelations, and wards don’t develop skills.”

Standardized test scores and graduation rates for students at Chad are well below the state averages. But poor educational performance is not unique to Chad; reports indicate that the dorm-style facilities are also failing in this regard. When I popped in to a science classroom at DeWitt, for example, I found a teacher hunched over a stack of papers while a dozen students paid zero attention to a National Geographic video. Just as I began to ask one of the wards about his interests, an alarm went off. Elsewhere in the facility somebody had discovered a door unlocked, and an announcement came over the loudspeaker instructing all wards to return to their bunks for an emergency count. Class dismissed.

Treatment is substandard as well. With pinched resources and high ward-to-staff ratios, managers make do with what they have. Unfortunately, what they have is shamefully inadequate, and the fallout is everywhere apparent. One psychologist handles all of the case files at DeWitt, which has an average daily population of 350 wards. And a part-time psychiatrist splits twenty hours per week between DeWitt and Chad. As a result, qualified psychological care is administered on a crisis-only basis, and regular programs addressing issues like substance abuse and gang violence are given over to youth counselors, who not only lack specialized training but are perceived by wards as guards to be feared rather than social workers to be trusted.

“The dual role is really hard,” admits Joan Loucraft, assistant superintendent at Chad. “One minute you’re treating them and the next you’re macing them for a disturbance.” Loucraft is hopeful that Warner’s proposed reforms will lead to improvements in staff training and temperament. As it’s currently configured, she believes, the system is in crisis. “Over time, we have strayed so far off the path, I don’t know if we remember where the path was,” she says.

Remarkably, the wards are the ones held accountable for the institutional meltdown. Substance-abuse programs and follow-up services for parolees are a shambles, yet parole violators are frequently brought back for drug relapses. As the state has acknowledged, punishment substitutes for behavior modification, and collective punishment is common. Until last summer, it was routine at Chad to impose a facility-wide lockdown–cutting off programming for weeks at a stretch–following an outburst in a single unit.

To this day, disciplinary “time adds,” which are supposed to be reserved for serious disruptions and have been shown to reinforce negative behavior, are administered readily and without standard procedures for “earn back” rewards. Depending on the severity of the ward’s misconduct, a single time add can postpone parole eligibility by up to one year; the average sentence for all of the state’s wards extends by more than eight months. “Time adds make no sense in this kind of environment,” says Jakada Imani, director of the grassroots advocacy group Books Not Bars. “You sit them down on hot rocks and punish them for standing up. It’s crazy.”

With the deck stacked so heavily against them, many wards try to bide their time until they hit their “magic birthday,” when the state must release them without parole. Others retaliate, and when they max out on time adds or prove unreceptive to discipline, they are simply passed down the line–until they hit a dead end at Chad.

“This facility has always been looked at as the last stop,” says Chad superintendent Eric Umeda. “We took everyone’s program failures.” Of course, Chad has plenty of its own program failures to answer for. An atrocious practice of locking disruptive students in steel cages for instruction was canceled in 2004. In January of that year, a surveillance camera captured a vicious staff assault on two wards. In the video Delwin Brown pins 21-year-old Narcisco Morales on his stomach and punches him relentlessly in the face, pulling him up by the hair at one point to get a better angle. Meanwhile, Marcel Berry wrestles 19-year-old Vincent Baker to the floor, knees him into submission and handcuffs him. Long after Baker has stopped resisting, Berry kicks him in the ribs. The other guards simply stand by, except for the one who steps in and fires pepper spray at close range.

When the footage leaked, the CYA responded by firing all six guards involved: two for excessive force and four for filing false reports. The scandal would have receded at this point were it not for the vigorous defense of the CCPOA, which entered the fray with a wrongful termination claim. Last summer the State Personnel Board ordered the agency to rehire the guards, and in April a judge affirmed the ruling, adding that they were entitled to back pay. Appeals are still pending, but as of May 1 the so-called Chad Six have been reporting for duty at DeWitt.

And then there is the case of Joseph Maldonado, who was committed to the Preston facility in 2004 at the age of 17. Given his diminutive stature (five foot five, 120 pounds) and nonviolent offense (vehicle theft), there’s no justifiable explanation for why Maldonado was transferred to Chad. And there’s no good reason why he was denied access to mental-health consultation, a state-mandated service he requested on four separate occasions for help dealing with feelings of agitation, emotional stress and claustrophobia. Then again, no amount of explaining on the part of the Division of Juvenile Justice would excuse Maldonado’s death.

Maldonado’s case file describes him as a member of the Norteños, a Hispanic gang based in Northern California, and lists a series of gang-related disturbances at Preston that led to his transfer. On paper he comes across as a serious troublemaker, but his sister, Renee Nuñez, described him to me over the phone as a “soft-spoken, very private” guy who never got into drugs or violence. “He was in it for the homeboy love, but he got caught up in something else here,” says Matthew D’Valentine, a youth counselor at Chad who knew Maldonado. “If anyone had looked at it, they would have seen that he was way out of his element.”

An Inspector General’s report published in December 2005 explains that Maldonado’s death (the fifth in the CYA since 2004) was preceded by an eight-week lockdown during which education, health services, visitation and exercise were cut off; wards were only allowed to leave their cells for three weekly showers. Maldonado was presented with two impossible options: He could earn programming privileges by forsaking his gang (which would likely have prompted a beating from one of the Norteño leaders in his unit) or remain in solitary confinement, a condition that was becoming increasingly untenable. Cornered, desperate, he resolved to die. On the night of August 31, 2005, the guards on duty broke procedure and waited more than half an hour after noticing Maldonado had covered his cell window before opening the door to find him hanging from a bedsheet.

Following Maldonado’s suicide, lockdown policies were canceled, and intake to the facility was cut off. The day I visited everyone I spoke to confirmed that morale had improved as a result. But old habits die hard: On June 13, a student cornered his teacher in the library and attacked her, sending her to the hospital with fractured ribs and a broken nose. When a group of teachers confronted management about its failure to train staff to handle such crises or, in this case, to heed the obvious warning signs–the teacher had submitted a report the previous day about the student’s threatening behavior, and he had been seen by guards giving his belongings away, a sure sign of trouble–superintendent Eric Umeda and Glenda Pressley, the acting superintendent of education, shrugged off the complaints. On June 16, about thirty-two of Chad’s forty teachers walked out. Jim Boyle, a fine arts teacher who represents the teacher’s union, says he and other teachers at Chad are not only afraid to return to work but also skeptical about the administration’s willingness to hear them out. “In so many words, they told us to get back to work,” Boyle says. “Our concern is that they’re not going to do anything about this until one of our members is dead.”

“I think the tough-on-crime philosophy has run its course,” says Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a public-interest firm in San Francisco. “The evidence is now clear that rehabilitation works, and that it’s safer, less expensive and more humane to have a system that emphasizes treatment rather than punishment. Those are not opinions, those are facts.” In 2003 the Prison Law Office filed a major taxpayer lawsuit against the CYA alleging abuse and institutional incompetence, and seeking a comprehensive overhaul. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger settled the case in 2004 when he signed a consent decree acknowledging serious problems. The Governator has since promised to “blow up the box,” a favorite shorthand for taking action on prison reform.

After a bit of foot-dragging, the Division of Juvenile Justice is now incorporating progressive strategies from other states and moving forward with an ambitious remedial plan. The ninety-page draft proposal released in April appropriately highlights the need to reduce the level of violence and fear in the institutions, and calls for sweeping changes in all areas–from revamping the management structure to improving data analysis to standardizing disciplinary procedures like time adds. The draft also details the technical steps that should be taken to restore a rehabilitative culture, with particular emphasis on shrinking unit size and hiring a stable of specially trained psychologists.

The publication of the plan brought a welcome whiff of optimism to the legislature. In the past lawmakers have been reluctant to throw money at what some call a “black hole.” But on May 18 the Senate Budget Committee, perhaps benefiting from a surprise windfall of tax revenues, approved almost $80 million in reform funding for the next fiscal year (another $30 million in ongoing funds had already been secured). As Bernard Warner points out, a plan of this scope requires time and consistent leadership. In a department known for its high turnover, however, commitment is a rare commodity. Warner, who signed on to head the Division of Juvenile Justice last summer, has already been promoted. As undersecretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations, he now splits his time between the juvenile side, where he manages a $500 million budget, and adult corrections, which recently proposed a budget of $8.2 billion. Warner insists his priority remains with the juveniles, but the reform plan now accounts for only a portion of his responsibilities.

Some of the state’s strongest youth advocates–including Books Not Bars and Gloria Romero, the Democratic majority leader in the State Senate–correctly point out that the plan does not go far enough. It does not prioritize alternatives to incarceration, closing outmoded facilities or equipping local communities with the tools to keep troubled teens at home. Tellingly, it placates the CCPOA by recommending positions for up to 300 new guards. In short, it is a proposal to retrofit a failing system rather than to develop a new one. Nevertheless, there is a clear consensus among researchers, managers, psychologists and staff that the plan, if implemented, would vastly improve the conditions of confinement in California’s youth prisons.

In the meantime, wards like Lee Moua are languishing. A stocky 20-year-old sentenced at 16 for armed robbery, Moua was released last October and sent to a group home for parole. But in January he absconded, and in March he was picked up in Merced, where he used to hang out with an Asian gang called the Men of Destruction. He spent the next few months at Chad awaiting a “disposition hearing” to determine whether he was fit for release. When I met him he was seated across the table from Joyce Arredondo, tapping his foot and nervously pleading his case. He was sober and had been looking for a job, he said. His parole agent at the home was verbally and physically abusive, but when he tried to contact a supervisor to ask for a reassignment, nobody responded. So he fled, and went to Atlanta to stay with his aunt.

“While I’m concerned about the allegation,” Arredondo said, “it doesn’t excuse your behavior.” He had other choices, she explained. He could have contacted someone at the parole board, or called the governor’s office. “You didn’t make good decisions, young man,” she said. When Arredondo made a motion to revoke Moua’s parole, his cuffed hands fell in his lap.