“Factory of Misery and Child Abuse”: Van Jones on Child Prisons in California

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The head of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland speaks about new evidence that juvenile detentions are being beaten inside state facility. [includes rush transcript]

From death row in Pennsylvania, we move to the prison system here in California. But not the adult prison system, rather, the institutions here known as the California Youth Authority. Human rights activists call the CYA system a “factory of misery and child abuse.” Recent reports on the CYA have revealed rampant sexual assault, alarming suicide rates, children held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. All of this, while the state of California characterizes the CYA as a place where troubled kids are sent to encourage them to become upstanding adults.

Well, a campaign to shut down these child prisons is gaining momentum here in California. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights recently announced a state-wide day of action called “Stop the Tragedies, Stop the Abuse.” On April 28, a series of candlelight vigils will be held across California to remember two teenagers who were both found hanged in the cell they shared in a CYA prison.

California State Senator Gloria Romero recently released a video of California Youth Authority guards beating two boys inside the prison. The video shows the guards beating the boys long after the boys stop offering even meager resistance.

  • Van Jones, lawyer and organizer and founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which challenges human rights abuses within the U.S. criminal justice system, including programs like Books Not Bars and New York City PoliceWatch.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Van Jones. He is a lawyer and organizer and founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which challenges human rights abuses within the U.S. criminal justice system. It’s a privilege to have you here, Van Jones.

VAN JONES: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this latest video and the situation of the California Youth Authority.

VAN JONES: Yes. First of all, we have this disgusting videotape. It’s a Rodney King-style videotape beating. One of the young men is hit 28 separate times. 28 blows are landed against this child who is lying on his back with an adult straddling him and beating him. This kind of abuse — what we thought is — we were shocked. We showed it to young people who have been in the California Youth Authority and they looked at it and looked at it and said, where’s the controversial part? This happens every day. This is the fabled California — the liberal state, the golden liberal California dream. The dark, sinister underbelly is this massive incarceration economy. California spends more money on prisons than any other state in the union. And the ten youth prisons that we have, have now, as a result of the lawsuit, been exposed as places where children are beaten. They’re put in four by four cages. They’re sexual assaults against these young people and, finally, the state legislature has begun to take notice and have hearings, but parents and children have been saying for two decades now that this is a horrendous, permanent feature of human rights abuses here in the United States, concentrated in California Youth Authority.

We are launching a campaign, the Books Not Bars campaign has been launched and will kick off officially on April 28th to say: No more children should be so horrendously abused by adults in California that they will literally take their own lives. We have had two highly suspicious suicides. Whether those two children were murdered or whether they took their own lives, it is time to shut down the California Youth Authority. The youth prisons do not work. We are spending $80,000 per kid in the youth authority. It costs — you can send two kids to Yale for the cost sending one kid to jail, and yet there’s a 91% recidivism rate. It is an $80,000 prep school for adult prisons where children are beaten and abused, and it’s time to shut the California Youth Authority down and replace it with something more humane and effective.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is the most powerful lobby in the state for keeping the CYA prisons?

VAN JONES: The California prison guard’s union, the CCPLA, is the most powerful lobbying interest in Sacramento. They are such a powerful force, and they have such a strangle-hold on the democratic party in this state, that California spends more money on prisons than Texas. And, last year, when everybody was talking about the California budget crisis, the huge shortfall, the shortfall is bigger than the budget of most countries, while teachers were being given pink slips in the state, prison guards got a 7.5% pay raise. That’s how powerful this union is, and they have a stake in maintaining these factories of maintaining abuse for children. We say no.

Even Missouri, John Ashcroft’s Missouri, has gotten enough sense to move into the 21st century. They don’t put children in cages. They take the so-called worst offenders, the ones everyone is so afraid of, and they put them in regional rehabilitation centers. They give them therapy. It costs half of what we’re spending and they have a 70% success rate. We’re spending twice as much with a 91% failure rate. That’s on a good day, when there is no abuse. When we talked to young people, they say, almost every day there are fights, beatings and sexual assaults going on, so even if — even if you can eliminate the abuse, the failure rate of this system, the money that’s being spent that could be spent on teachers — on teachers, coaches, counselors, art programs, the things that would turn the kids around, no. Those dollars are being robbed from the schools and spent on brutalizing young people and we say it is time for this to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: How is the change in governorship from Gray Davis to Arnold Schwarzenegger affected or not affected the situation for kids in prisons?

VAN JONES: Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for office priding himself on how he had been advocate for inner city kids and he has done all of this for inner city kids and he did a ballot measure for inner city kids. Well, this is an opportunity for Arnold Schwarzenegger to actually stand up for inner city kids who are being beaten and brutalized and mistreated by people on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s payroll, the people who are working at the California Youth Authority, and he has said nothing. He has convened a little blue ribbon commission to talk about it, but so far, we have seen no action from this governor. The true hero is Senator Romero, the Latina legislator, who has stood up to the prison guard union. She has demanded hearings and she has been driving forward, along with grassroots organizations, this cause, but we have heard nothing encouraging from this so-called action hero. Let’s see heroic action for the kids in CYA, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

AMY GOODMAN: Van Jones, has the fact that this is a presidential election year focused any attention on this nationally? For example, where does the democratic candidate, John Kerry, stand on this issue?

VAN JONES: Well, I mean, so far, we have heard nothing encouraging from John Kerry on the question of juvenile or criminal justice. I think he’s trying to duck it. The true heroes in the fight are the grassroots people as they have always been. We have Kim Magillicutty and Xavier Storing in Los Angeles leading the fight down there working with young kids directly who have been impacted, who can speak for themselves. We have a prison law office that has filed lawsuits here, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Sandy Close from “The Beat Within”, Sue Berrell, one of the staunch heroes at the Youth Law Center, David Steinhart who has been a warrior for us in Sacramento, the “Lets Get Free Youth”. You can go on and on and on naming the heroes of the grassroots level who have been providing this fight and finally now are getting some attention. You cannot name, with the exception of Senator Romero, more than one or two elected officials who, even now, will take a public stand on the side of these kids. And, John Kerry, the next time he comes to California, if he fails to speak out about this, I think it will send a very, very bad sign.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Van Jones, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. We’re going to have to break, but when we come back, we’re going to talk about the issue of green activism and communities of color in California, and we’ll also look at the area, the San Joaquin Valley, and it how it has become the place of the dirtiest air of the country. Also very special thanks to Noel Hannahan of the Prison Radio Project who made possible the interview with Mumia Abu Jamal. This is Democracy Now! Back in a moment.

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