Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

CYA Suit Alleges Abuse of Juveniles

The California Youth Authority (CYA) houses 6,000 juvenile offenders and was once considered a model for juvenile justice in this country. However, after decades of declining funding and worsening conditions, the California Youth Authority has deteriorated to where severely mentally ill juveniles go untreated, teachers do not show up for work or quit after only months on the job, and wards are subject to assault by both staff and other wards and are locked in filthy cells for 23 hours a day. These conditions and others prompted a federal class action lawsuit, filed by eleven CYA wards alleging that they and all wards are subject to inhumane, illegal and unconstitutional conditions. The lawsuit seeks a declaration from the federal district court that the conditions within the CYA are unconstitutional and an injunction requiring the CYA to improve them.

Mental health care in the CYA falls far below minimal constitutional standards and in many cases leaves mentally ill wards in worse condition when they leave CYA. Wards reported that if they are suicidal they are put in isolation cells or "camera rooms" for 72 hours where they are stripped and left unattended except for intermittent monitoring by closed circuit cameras. Visits with psychiatrists during the time in the camera room rarely last more than five minutes. The CYA has 14 staff psychiatrist positions to serve 6,000 wards (a ratio of 1:428) and in July of 2001 six of those positions were vacant. Mentally ill wards are given psychotropic medications to control their behavior in place of therapy. One 16 year old plaintiff was given psychotropic medication without consent of a parent or guardian and was threatened with solitary confinement if he refused.

Education of CYA wards borders on non-existent. Teachers are frequently absent and many education positions, particularly those in special education, remain vacant for months at a time. One plaintiff who required special education classes went without any education for seven months and, after being in CYA custody for over five years, had been able to earn only 60 of the 200 credits required for a high school diploma. This abject failure of the education system within the CYA is both tragic and punitive as wards often are required to have a high school diploma in order to be paroled from the CYA, ensuring that many wards remain in CYA custody well into their twenties.

This lack of education is compounded by the CYA's "lockup" procedure where wards are locked in cells for up to 23 hours a day for months at time, often ostensibly for their own protection. "Lockup" cells can be filthy, with dried blood and feces on the walls and plumbing that does not function. One mentally ill ward was placed in lockup in the basement of a 70 year old building for seven months. During that time he received little mental health treatment.

The CYA also regularly places entire living units on lockdown for months at a time and denies access to education and religious services to entire living units. CYA wards who are in lockup cannot go to school, exercise or access religious services. On the rare occasions where wards are permitted to attend school they sit in a telephone booth sized cage.

The CYA also fails to protect vulnerable wards from known threats. Two named plaintiffs were housed on the same living units with wards who had sexually assaulted them on prior occasions, despite full knowledge of the situation by CYA staff. When one plaintiff reported being raped, staff told other wards about the assault and disciplined him for having sexual contact with another ward, thereby extending his time in custody.

The failure of the CYA to protect wards from known threats of violence is no surprise since staff often use excessive force on wards. Wards reported being physically assaulted by staff and being maced after they had already been restrained and no longer posed a threat to anyone. One named plaintiff was beaten by staff with a mace can after he had been cuffed. Another was knocked unconscious after being shot directly in the head with a "foam baton" gun.

Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office stated "The CYA has been underfunded and neglected for decades. It is now as bad or worse than some of the conditions in the adult prisons that the courts have declared unconstitutional." The eleven named plaintiffs hope to change how the CYA operates.

The case is Stevens v. Harper (No.Civ. S-01-0675), filed in Federal District Court in California on January 23, 2001. The complaint alleges causes of action under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; the guarantee of free speech under the First Amendment; the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (§504) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The defendants are the Director of the CYA and the CYA, and only injunctive relief is sought. A copy of the complaint is available on the Prison Law Office's website at Counsel for the plaintiffs are the Prison Law Office in San Rafael, Disability Rights Advocates of Oakland, and the law firms of Latham & Watkins and Pillsbury Madison of San Francisco.

Anne Mania is an attorney with the Prison Law Office and one of the lawyers on the case .

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Stevens v. Harper