Giving Detainees Access to Outdoor Recreation

February 12, 2012

By Trey Bundy  |  The New York Times and the Bay Citizen  —  

How many adults does it take to supervise a playground? Too many, apparently, if the playground is at San Francisco’s Juvenile Justice Center.

A large outdoor recreation area at the city’s juvenile hall — part of a $47 million renovation in 2006 — has sat mostly unused for five years. Center officials say staff shortages and security concerns have prevented youthful detainees from using the space, which includes basketball and volleyball courts, a kickball diamond and a soccer field with grass.

“They gave us the yard, but they didn’t give us the proper allocation of staff to be able to post up in there,” said William Siffermann, chief of juvenile probation, who oversees the hall.

Now a group of young people, including some former juvenile detainees, are taking the matter to the mayor and the Board of Supervisors. The San Francisco Youth Commission — a 17-member volunteer group of young people ages 12 to 23 that makes policy recommendations to city leaders — drafted a resolution last week calling for detainees to have regular access to the space.

The commission also questioned whether detainees at the hall were getting outside enough to comply with state regulations. Every juvenile is required to have an opportunity for outdoor exercise for at least an hour a day.

“I spent two full years in juvenile hall, always wishing I could go outside more,” said Angel Carrion, 20, one of the youth commissioners. Mr. Carrion was released in 2009, after earning a G.E.D., and now works with juveniles in the justice system.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think many youth in there know what they’re allowed to do or what they’re allowed to be getting,” he said.

Mr. Carrion and a fellow commissioner, Rene Ontiveros, who also served time in the hall, said they doubted, based on their experience, that most detainees got outside for an hour each day.

Mr. Siffermann said juvenile hall was in compliance with state mandates but added that he “can’t say with certainty that every kid has had his or her opportunities” to go outside.

A 2010 evaluation by the Corrections Standards Authority, the state agency that inspects the center every two years, found no state code violations there.

While the large fields sit dormant, young offenders spend their outdoor time on small courtyards adjacent to five living units. Although each unit houses up to 20 youths, only about five can use a courtyard at a time because of the size and supervision concerns.

Because the courtyards are typically available for only an hour a day, Mr. Ontiveros said, “getting 20 kids on that yard for an hour is impossible.”

Mr. Siffermann acknowledged that there was only a “short window of time” each day for detainees to go outside.

He also said there were legitimate reasons some detainees did not get outside each day.

“We might have a kid that’s on more discipline and requires more room time,” he said. “Some kids don’t want to go outside, and I can’t force them out there.”

Detainees have gym classes during school hours, but those are inside and do not provide the physical and mental health benefits associated with sunlight.

“When you’re locked in a facility with limited access to natural light, it’s very unhealthy and depressing,” said Sue Burrell, a lawyer at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.

Using the whole space would require improving the yard’s fence and paying overtime wages for staff members, Mr. Siffermann said. The money needed for both items has not been budgeted. But as a step forward, he said, his staff would begin allowing youths to use two basketball courts on the edges of the yard beginning in March.

In response to the youth commission’s concerns, Mr. Siffermann has agreed to meet with the commissioners quarterly. He led them on a tour of the center last week.

The commissioners are committed to working with Mr. Siffermann, but they remain unconvinced by the state’s assessment that detainees are getting enough fresh air and sunlight.

“Either they had a dog and pony show when the big bosses were coming down or the regulations need to be fixed,” Mr. Ontiveros said.

tbundy@baycitizen.org