Would-Be 'Gangstas' Get Deterrence, Not Detention
THE first words that come to mind when you meet Norman are not ''juvenile delinquent.'' This shy, slight seventh-grader plays the trumpet and the violin, knows next to everything about reptiles, and hopes to be a pilot someday.
But lately, Norman has adopted the foul deportment of the gangster rappers he watches on TV. His grades have plummeted, he has run away from home, and police have picked him up for scrawling graffiti on fences and highway overpasses.
After a battery of counselors and tutors failed to help, Norman's parents decided late last month to show their son exactly where his misbehavior could lead: the Ventura School.
Tucked behind lemon groves 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, this California Youth Authority (CYA) facility houses about 800 of the state's most serious juvenile offenders.
Under an innovative, year-old program, parents and teachers throughout the state bring at-risk children here for daylong visits. Inside, the school's inmates, or ''wards,'' work to persuade kids like Norman to kick the hoodlum habit.
''We're hoping this will be an eye-opener,'' says Norman's father, who asked that his son's real name not be used. ''I hope bringing him here will take some of the joy out of his new [gangsta] style.''Indeed, the primary target of the at-risk program is the notion that breaking the law is glamorous.
''These kids hear lies on the street that coming here is going to give them status, that it's going to be an adventure,'' says Eduardo Cue, a CYA gang officer who oversees the at-risk program. ''We want kids to know the whole story: That every day you wake up at 6:30, every day you have three square meals, and every day you go about as far as the backyard.''
On the 54-acre compound, wards dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts march double-file from one class to another under the shadow of an 18-foot fence.
Today's tour group, marched in the same manner, stops at the lockup unit. Here, wards who cause trouble are confined to 5-by-7-foot cells, empty but for a seatless metal toilet and a tattered 4-inch-thick mattress.
When wards in the lockup unit take a shower, Officer Cue tells the group, they have to do it with one hand cuffed to the pipes. ''This is what your life is like in here,'' he says. ''You're a number here, and we own you.''
Yet despite these initial shock tactics, the Ventura program is, overall, surprisingly mellow. The goal here, according to one ward, is less to scare would-be delinquents than to show them how sad and boring incarceration can be.
Between tour stops, wards describe, in long, unrehearsed monologues, the endless progression of fights, strip searches, and sleepless nights at the school, balanced only by the occasional letter from home.
Raoul Aguillar sits backwards on a wooden chair in the lockup unit, his soft voice barely audible over the crackle of guards' walkie-talkies.
He explains that he is serving the last few weeks of an eight-year sentence for a murder he committed at the age of 15.
''I had problems at home, and I started hanging around with the wrong crowd, because I thought they were my friends,'' Mr. Aguillar says. ''I started disobeying my mother, and it just went on from there: car theft, armed robbery, then murder.''
Aguillar looks directly at Norman, who averts his eyes.
''I haven't had a McDonald's hamburger since 1986,'' he says, a statement that causes Norman and the other kids to trade glances. ''I haven't rode in the front seat of a car for that long, either. The only thing I know how to do is cut the grass here. I've never had a real job.
''There are things out there that are beautiful to enjoy,'' he continues, staring out the room's row of barred windows, ''but not in here, man. Not in here.''
These speeches, followed by ward-to-visitor talks, are the capstones of the at-risk program, Cue says. ''These wards are very sharp. They'll look at the kid that's inattentive, or the kid that cops an attitude, and they'll confront the kid, bring to their attention that their behavior could lead to a lockup. When a kid hears these things coming from someone in their own peer group, it means a lot more.''
According to spokeswoman Cynthia Brown, the Ventura School is the most normal of the CYA's 17 juvenile jails, because it is the state's only co-ed facility.
The school has high school classes, a gym, an auditorium, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and a college program. Through a partnership called ''free venture,'' two companies have opened offices on campus, providing real-life jobs for as many as 87 wards.
The average cost per inmate here is $3,100 a month, and the average sentence is 18 months. In the wake of California's prolonged recession, Ms. Brown says, the school's budget, now $23 million, has been cut in each of the last seven years.
The at-risk program began last year, she says, after the school's traveling outreach program met the budget ax. So far the reviews from parents, teachers, and kids, have been enthusiastic.
''These days, the pressures on kids are greater than ever before,'' Cue says. ''In just five years, the values of the kids have slipped dramatically, and guns are easier than ever to get. Kids need all the help and encouragement they can get.''
As the tour ends, a group of wards pulls Norman aside and begins telling him about the downside of gang life. Norman shifts his feet anxiously, torn between listening and acting defiant.
''He goes to a school with 600 kids, and it seems like he always picks the six you'd least like him to associate with,'' Norman's father says. ''He's a wannabe gang banger, and it's dismaying to us, because we don't have a broken home.''
Norman's mother agrees. ''I never dreamed that he would have so many negative influences on him at such a young age,'' she says.
Norman looks over at his parents, a bit teary now. Chris McCarthy, a 23-year-old ward serving out a sentence for murder, crouches in front of him.
''It's either stay home and listen to your mom and dad who love you, or wind up here with a guy with a badge telling you what to do who doesn't care,'' Mr. McCarthy says. ''When you're good here, nobody notices. But when you're bad, nobody forgets.''