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."