LA County Closing Three Juvenile Prisons, Perhaps Setting a Precedent
Kim McGill talks about the impact of closing three youth prisons in California, the history of mass incarceration in LA County, and the vision for what will happen next.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.
Recently, Governor Newsom of California had decided to close down three youth jails. California’s youth jails are some of the most notorious jails in the country. They are rife with abuse, and all kinds of other activities, including locking the youth in their cell for 23 hours a day, with only one hour out.
Joining me today to explain all this is Kim McGill, from the Youth Justice Coalition. Thank you for joining me today, Kim.
Kim McGill: Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be here.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Now, I understand that the reason for the closing of these youth detention centers is about the budget and covid-19. So how is that impacting the youth treatment in the rest of the centers, and the social programs?
Kim McGill: Well, I can speak to not only Division of Juvenile Justice, which used to be known as the California Youth Authority, also known as the nation’s most notorious youth prison system. In the early 2000s, it had 10,000 youth in it.
Now, today, there’s far less than 1,000 youth on [inaudible 00:01:36] system. But there’s also juvenile halls and probation camps, or probation ranches. Probation camps and ranches are California’s version of local county youth prisons. Then we have juvenile halls for predisposition for young people that are being detained, going back and forth to court throughout the state, also.
And then, of course, we have county jails. LA County has a largest county jail system in the world, the largest juvenile halls and youth prison system in the world, and feeds into the world’s largest prison system. So all of those facilities have been dramatically impacted by COVID.
We have hundreds of people that have been kept, tested positive in the LA County jail, had our first death this week, unfortunately. We’ve been suing the state, as well as local county officials, our organizations, Youth Justice Coalition, and Dignity and Power Now, are named plaintiffs on the local lawsuit. And then, we’re named plaintiffs on a state lawsuit, but the courts have refused to hear the case to date.
We’ve also seen, and in state prisons, there’s even more deaths, and in the federal prisons, of course, deaths also. So we have Lompoc, here in California, Lompoc Federal Prison, and Terminal Island Federal Prison. Both have had over 10 deaths now. So we have, again, hundreds of people testing positive, and dozens of deaths. For people in custody, the rates are much higher than general population on the outside. That’s just on the covid, Yeah.
Eddie Conway: And I’m not sure about this number, but I have a number that says it costs $300,000 a year per youth to incarcerate youth in California. Is that number correct? And if that’s the cost, is that going to impact other jails and prisons, even around the country? That’s that’s really excessive.
Kim McGill: So it fluctuates a little bit, county by county. That’s the rate, for sure, for LA County juvenile halls and camps. It’s about that, and DJJ similarly, a little bit higher, actually. The reason for that is complex, though, and important to know.
Because people in the system will tell you that the costs are high because they’re giving young people all kinds of resources, and that due to organizing and lawsuits, there’s a demand for young people to get better quality education or better quality mental healthcare, or better quality youth development. But still, most young people are not getting quality education or access to quality programming.
What’s really happened, when you look more closely is, that crime rates are at their lowest level since the 1950s and ’60s. That’s throughout the country, not just in California, yet the budgets for LA County Probation and probation departments throughout the state, as well as local law enforcement, local sheriffs and state corrections, has increased. So at a time when they have many less bodies inside, their budgets have increased dramatically.
For example, LAPD’s budget has gone up by nearly a billion dollars. The Sheriff’s budget annual budget has gone up by a billion dollars a year. Probation’s budget is up by $550 million a year. So they’re getting not just a little bit of increases, but dramatic increases, at a time when their numbers, like for example, LA County Probation in our juvenile halls and camps, has 80% of the population declined.
In other words, since 2007, we have 80% less young people in our juvenile halls and camps in LA County. But again, the budget has increased by 550 million. So what you see is that the increase in costs for custody really has more to do with the system getting ever richer off less and less people.
And we have this imbalance, this addiction to incarceration in our county, that has also spread throughout the nation, at the expense of parks, playgrounds jobs, youth centers, after school programs, housing for people. We can’t afford anything else because our local and municipal budgets, our county budgets and our state budgets, are saturated with law enforcement, with probation, with courts, and with incarceration.
Eddie Conway: Okay, so now, once these facilities are closed, I understand the youth will be put in county youth detention centers. What’s the difference between those kinds of centers, and the ones that the state was running?
Kim McGill: I think that’s what the community is trying to push back on. So we have a letter that we can share with people, with our specific demands and vision, out of the Youth Justice Coalition. A number of groups signed onto it, and we have a statewide letter that we could share, for groups throughout the state.
And what people are pushing for is that young people not have punitive prison-like facilities in their counties. What could happen with the closing of Division of Juvenile Justice is that we see an increase of young people in pushed into adult court. We could see upcharging increased, upcharging by DAs. We could see an increase of young people that are transferring to state prisons, or we can see probation departments use very punishment-oriented juvenile halls as the place where young people are sent.
For us, that would be the mini-supermax prison known as the Compound, in Sylmar juvenile hall, 20-foot high fences. It has all the prison supermax cell confinement architecture that a regular supermax prison would. Young people don’t have access to programming. Oftentimes, they’re on lockdown for long parts of the day, even as we’ve outlawed solitary confinement in California for more than four hours, and only then, when other options have been exhausted.
So there’s a lot of problems with the way the system is crafting this transfer to county. We have until 2023, which is not much time to develop a different kind of vision. What we’re really pushing for is that most young people would be in community care or in their homes. We want this to really be coupled with a huge change in our penal code in our state WIC Code, Welfare Institutions Code. So many more cases are divertable away from the system altogether.
We think that community-based organizations, job training programs, et cetera, better able to work with young people. And for that small fraction of young people that have the most serious charges, where the courts might not allow for community or home care, then we want young people and youth development centers run by youth development experts, coaches, artists, teachers, not by corrections officers or probation guards. So that’s what we’re hoping to push for in LA County and across the state.
Eddie Conway: Oh, so I’ve noticed that there’s talk about closing two other state prisons, prisons for adults. Do you have any information about that?
Kim McGill: Yes. We’re still not confirmed, which prisons will be closed, and families are scrambling to try to push for more closures. We have a coalition of families that meets on Monday nights, families whose loved ones are inside the state prison system. And they’ve been organizing around mergers, around covid-19 in the prisons, as well as around improved conditions of confinement and access to good time credits so people could come home earlier.
We’re trying, they really are taking a lead, in trying to find out more information on what those closures mean. Of course, if we go back to 1980, we had between 26,000 and 30,000 people in our state prison system. By 2010, we had 171,000 people in our state prison system.
So with all the changes that people have pushed for, Prop 57 Prop 47, AB 109 realignment, the changes that people have made to law, penal code laws to bring people home earlier, to have slightly better sentencing, we’re still at 121,000 people in our state system, way farther than the 26 to 30,000 we had in 1980.
For us, we really want to go back to the future. How can we have our goal set for abolition of prisons, abolition of juvenile halls and camps? But in the meantime, how can we at least get back to 1980 numbers, where we can eliminate our addiction to incarceration?
Eddie Conway: Is Governor Newsom behind this effort to limit the amount of time people spend on parole once they’re released, from five years down to two years? And also, to be able to get off of supervised parole within a year, or 18 months? Is this an effort coming from grass roots, or is this an effort coming from the Governor’s Office?
Kim McGill: There’s a growing number of organizations in California and across the country, too, led by formerly incarcerated people and our families. And so, I think that this policy change, like most policy changes in California, are coming from the ground.
But we have done a lot to pressure elected officials, including Governor Newsom, to be more progressive in these areas, not where we want people to stand yet, but getting slightly closer. And I think he will support it.
Eddie Conway: Well, it seems like, at this point, California is leading the effort, to change how people are incarcerated. Are you working with other groups in other states, that’s also organizing around prisons? And do you think that this California is making from the grass roots level is going to impact other states?
Kim McGill: I mean, I think that mass incarceration of people of color has its epicenter in LA County. We have always led in incarceration, going all the way back to 1848. From 1848 to 1871, we had the highest lynching rate in the nation. People don’t talk about Los Angeles County that way, but that’s a fact. And it came off of policies that were pushed by law enforcement, and local government officials, who wanted to eradicate people of color from LA County, as well as to maintain white supremacy.
We had engaged in an illegal war with Mexico, that brought this land into American control. And that led to that high lynching rate. That’s when we first got our gang labels. People were labeled as bandits, who are trying to reclaim their land, and were punished severely or killed.
We had the highest extermination of Native people also during that time. So it’s not to say that Native American extermination didn’t happen across the world, across the nation, but LA County and California lost 90% of its Indigenous population during that time, from 1848 to 1890. And so that, those massacres, those genocides that occurred, were really what were the roots of our jail and policing system here in LA County.
Of course, that continued throughout the 20th Century. But by the time the 1960s came, then we also led the nation in militarized policing. So Chief Parker, who kind of claimed to rid the LAPD, Los Angeles Police Department, of corruption, also put in place a very military structure and the use of military equipment.
So the use of Army tanks against the civilians was first used in the ’65 Watts rebellion. That was also used against the United Farm Workers, later in Bakersfield, and became the inspiration for the first SWAT units here in LA County. Philadelphia was experiencing similar things.
The first gang units were created here in LA County at that time, and the first gang unit created in 1973 was known as TRASH. So, horrible name, it says everything about how the police were seeing communities of color. Total Resources Against Street Hoodlums was the name for it. Later became CRASH, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums.
By the mid-1980s, we’d created the world’s first gang databases. Those were first paper, and then, later, computerized shared files, where law enforcement could tap in. And anyone who was alleged to be involved, either as an associate or a member of a “gang,” there was no right to know if you were put on those files, no right to challenge, no right to removal. They claimed to purge those files, but there was no proof of that. So until we passed laws recently to challenge that, there was no accountability, no transparency in those shared gang databases.
LA County created the first gang injunctions in the world, in the early ’80s, not in areas of the county that were experiencing the highest levels of violence, but in areas of the county where white people were fearful of “people of color” moving into their communities, or where white communities were next to communities of color. And there was a real push to criminalize those communities. So gang injunctions were really more a tool of gentrification, displacement and community control, than they were public safety.
Then LA County, of course, has built up the largest infrastructure for policing and prisons. So we have the largest infrastructure for municipal and county police, the largest sheriff’s department in the world, largest County jails in the world, largest courts in the world, largest juvenile halls and youth prisons in the world, right here in our county.
And because we’ve also exported the laws around that, of course, we gave the world Richard Nixon and the war on drugs, and the law and order backlash that first came out in response to the ’60s movements led by young people of color. We gave the world Ronald Reagan, and the war on drugs on steroids, and Iran-Contra. We’ve led the nation in deportations, largely driving those war on drugs and war on gangs policies.
And so, we’ve exported violence out of the United States, out of LA County worldwide, because of deporting people. We of course created that violence in Central America, and forced people, through Iran-Contra, into the streets of Los Angeles. So all of that has its roots in LA County, not to mention the fact that fast foods has its roots here, Hollywood has its roots here, televangelism has its roots here.
It’s considered a liberal place, but it’s been an epicenter for mass incarceration and mass punishment for a long, long time. Given that, we have an obligation to export better things out of California.
So I am hopeful that some of the things that are changing will catch on across the country. But I also know that people are already leading their grass roots efforts, their community efforts, everywhere they are, and that the vision that’s being driven by people that have experienced the system firsthand, by formerly incarcerated people in our families, will win out as long as people stay strong, will win out.
The vision and the change for Arkansas is going to be different than the vision and change for California, same for New York, same for Wisconsin. People know best what they need in their own states, in their own regions. And hopefully we can be a support and an inspiration to each other.
Eddie Conway: I understand that five major prisons in California is now the epicenter of covid-19. What’s being done in the state? I heard you earlier saying something about filing a suit. But what’s being done to protect the prison population? And can you talk a little bit about that?
Kim McGill: Yeah. Well, first, just to connect covid to the closing of DJJ, when we first got involved in the battle to close CYA, which was the California Youth Authority, the name that DJJ used to have, we got involved because one of our members, our families, their son was in DJJ. And his name was Deon Whitfield.
He was 17 years old, a person who was in a cell with locked down for 23 and a half hours a day. They only came out for showers. They had all their programming, so-called programming, in the cell. So they had school packets thrown at them on lockdown for months. Not for punishment. That was just the way that young people overall were treated.
They were also given Prozac without their parents’ knowledge. It was later determined that Prozac has the opposite effect on young people than it does for adults. It actually increased depression. So Deon Whitfield and Durrell Feaster were found hung in their cells.
During that same time, five young people overall, in a very short period, a period of about a year and a half, were found dead in CYA facilities. So this idea in California and across the nation, that juvenile halls, camps, jails, prisons are safe places for people is a myth. The death rate is very high, the violence rate is very high. Sexual assault and physical assault by staff against people inside is incredibly high.
Of course, the people that are running these facilities, the prison guards, the probation staff, the sheriff’s deputies in the jails, have the highest domestic violence, the highest alcoholism, the highest substance abuse rates, the highest child abuse rates of any profession. The violence that they impact, the violence that they inflict on others, eventually impacts them and their own families. And so, it’s a foul system that breeds violence, and breeds corruption.
So when covid hits that kind of an environment, where there’s already widespread abuse, where there’s already not medical care, or even the concern for people’s medical care inside, where we’ve already seen viruses like Hepatitis C, HIV, staph infection, tuberculosis, measles, things that are pretty much not an issue in the general population in the United States any longer, but sweep through lockups, and are incredibly impactful in communities, where they’re confined.
You can only imagine that when covid hits, it has a similar impact on people. And so, we’ve seen, again, that in our county jails, we have deaths in ours, in our federal prisons, a lot of deaths, and now, in our state prisons. The CIM has gotten hit the hardest. I don’t have today’s figures, because the figures change every day. But we recently had members that were at an action in front of CIM and Chino. And by then, there was nine people dead, just in that one facility.
Across the state, people can con get onto the CDCR website, that’s California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Rehabilitation, just think of it as a name. Nothing real in that name, really, but you can get onto the CDCR website, and it’ll give you the daily updates on how many people are contracting the virus, how many people are dying, including how many staff have it.
In the county jail, similarly, we’re seeing a huge infection rate, and we’re getting dozens of calls from people inside, including men that are crying, that are fearful of dying, that have been incubated, that have no access to their families, that don’t know if they’ll talk to anyone before they die. And so, it’s really devastating.
I know in Mississippi, there’s another facility that’s been hit particularly hard. I mentioned federal prison in Terminal Island, federal prison in Lompoc, have the highest rates in the federal system. They’re right here in California. We had an action with families in front of Lompoc, to where that day, there had been nine deaths by then. Now there’s more.
So we urge everyone with loved ones inside to contact us, and we can help you find who in your state, who in your region is fighting what we call incarceration virus. We’re pushing for the immediate release of as many people as possible, an immediate release of everyone on misdemeanors, and immediate release of anyone who’s medically vulnerable or elderly, an immediate release of anyone who’s there on probation or parole violations, and a case by case, a case review, to release as many people as possible.
Unfortunately, our judges have also cut, shut down the courts. People aren’t having access to their due process rights, due process to arraignment, to speedy trial. So we’re trying to fight all of that too. Anyone in California, or I would just say, and anyone in the nation, if you’re not sure who to connect with in your local area, you could contact us at [email protected], and we’ll try to find out who’s got a similar campaign going in your area.
Eddie Conway: Okay, Kim, that’s an excellent report. And hopefully people around the country will get in touch with your organization, Youth Justice Coalition.
Thanks for joining me. And hopefully we’ll come back together, and talk about this a little more later on.
Kim McGill: Thank you. I really appreciate you covering this issue. It’s a huge honor to be here.
Eddie Conway: And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.