California to Close Its Largest Juvenile Prison

August 28, 2009

By Michael Rothfeld  |  Los Angeles Times  —  

Reporting from Sacramento – The state is closing California’s largest youth prison as the population of juvenile offenders in state custody continues to decline, corrections officials announced Thursday.

The Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino will be converted into an adult prison, state officials said. The move is part of a plan to “right-size” staff at the Division of Juvenile Justice, which is reducing its workforce by 400 employees by the end of this year to save the state up to $40 million, said Bernard Warner, the chief deputy secretary for the division.

The plan also is geared toward reducing the annual cost of incarcerating and caring for each ward from $252,000 to $175,000, state officials said.

California’s youth prisons have been troubled for years. The state five years ago settled a lawsuit brought on behalf of the juveniles, who said they were locked up for long periods in dirty, dim cells without the education, rehabilitation, healthcare and other treatment the state was supposed to provide. Last year, lawyers for the juveniles mounted an unsuccessful effort to have the system put under court control.

Sue Burrell, a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, said Stark had been “an especially horrible place” since the slaying of Ineasie Baker, a female officer there, in 1996. An inmate was convicted of her murder.

“That sort of ushered in this repressive era,” Burrell said. “It really never got better. The past [13] years have been filled with lockdowns, beatings and various sorts of cages.”

With the closure, the state will have five youth prisons, down from 11 in 2003. Three minimum-security fire camps for juveniles have also been closed.

The number of juvenile offenders in state custody has declined to 1,700 over the last decade from a peak of nearly 10,000, the result of legislation that now puts most of the youths in county facilities where they can be closer to their families.

The Chino facility opened in 1959 and now houses fewer than 400 juvenile inmates. They will be redirected to other youth prisons. An exact closure date has not yet been determined.

Currently, the state has been using the youth prison, which has a capacity of 1,200, to house about 600 adult inmates displaced after a prison riot this month at the nearby California Institution for Men. To convert it into a full-time prison, it would have to be retrofitted to make it more secure, subject to approval from state lawmakers, prison officials said. Warner said the retrofitting would be cheaper — about a third as much — than the $500-million price tag for a new prison.

An adult prison on the site could house sick or mentally ill inmates, said Scott Kernan, the state’s undersecretary for operations. That could relieve some pressure from a panel of federal judges who have ordered the state to reduce the number of inmates in its overcrowded prisons by 40,000.

A statewide coalition of human rights groups Thursday urged state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to devise a plan to comply with the court order rather than appeal it.

“California’s correctional system is in a tailspin that threatens public safety and raises the risk of fiscal disaster,” said activists from the group Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

Brown and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have said they plan to appeal.

michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

Times staff writer Carol J. Williams contributed to this report. Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times