More Random Thoughts on a Rainy Day


Randall G. Shelden


There must be something about the rain that makes me think better.  I have no idea why this is so – I’ll leave this question for the psychologists to figure out.  Anyway, this day (March 28, 2006) started with a refreshing drizzle. In Las Vegas this is a rare treat.  We have just started our “spring” which will last about a month and then the heat begins.  By May it will be consistently in the 90s and may even reach 100.  Better make hay while the time is ripe (or whatever that saying is).


I started my morning with the usual ritual of reading the Los Angeles Times on the Internet and noticed right away a story about more violence erupting in a juvenile jail – called a “juvenile detention center.”  This institution is in Sylmar, next door to my home town of San Fernando.  While growing up I remember seeing it on several occasions and hearing that this was “juvi” and was for the “bad kids.”  The story begins this way:


When Los Angeles County officials opened the doors to their rebuilt juvenile hall in the San Fernando Valley three decades ago, the facility was supposed to provide a modern, safe place to house young offenders.  But by the time four teenagers jumped a wall there last week, Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall had become a grim illustration of the chaos and violence that has engulfed the county's troubled juvenile detention system. Teachers and Probation Department staffers at the 672-bed Sylmar facility, as well as county reports, detail an institution where fights between black and Latino youths routinely escalate into racial melees.  The young inmates are kept in their cells for hours and off the recreation fields because of security concerns and a lack of adequate staffing. Suicide attempts are not uncommon, according to county records and staff members' accounts. Inexperienced guards, many of whom have never dealt with teenage offenders, struggle to keep order even as they are called on to work double shifts. And teachers, some of whom have been assaulted, say they can't conduct classes because there aren't enough guards to keep order (“Violence Undermines County Juvenile Hall,” Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2006).


This is an interesting series of statements.  Found within these words is an age-old conflict inherent within the juvenile justice system.  It has been expressed in many different ways, but in essence it is that between “treatment” and “custody.”  The juvenile justice system is supposed to be oriented toward the “rehabilitation” of young offenders, yet at the same time is also oriented toward punishment.  This institution is both a legal system (complete with the normal legal accoutrements like judges, bailiffs, bars, handcuffs, police officers, courtrooms, etc.) and at the same time a sort of welfare institution with “case managers,” “treatment proposals,” “counselors,” etc.  The founders of the juvenile court were to extend a “long and kindly arm” to youthful offenders who were not totally responsible for their crimes.  Yet at the same time, the founders created a typical legal institution geared toward punishment.  Kids would be both “saved” (as per the aims of the “child savers”) and “held accountable” (i.e., punished) for their “crimes.”  The conflict has never been resolved, although certain periods have seen an emphasis on one or the other.  Today, it is mostly punishment that is going on.

Another irony is that the juvenile hall was named after one of the creators of the vast Los Angeles County juvenile halls and probation camps.  Barry Nidorf died in December of 2004 and his obituary had a quote from a 1984 interview where he made this statement: “Probation should be a form of punishment. If we can help [offenders] along the way, fine. But primarily the client has to be the community rather than the probationer.” The conflict could not be stated any more clearly than that.

This same week we have also seen headlines in the LA Times concerning massive protest demonstrations over immigration, a reflection of the persistent racial tensions all over the country.  In one of my classes I am showing the documentary film “The Fire This Time” which deals with the Watts riots of the mid-1960s and the rioting that took place after the Rodney King verdict in 1992.  The historical context that this film represents is best revealed in one of the most famous conclusions of the Kerner Commission that: the nation was divided into “two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”  The Commission also stated that “white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.  White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The findings of this commission, plus the McCone Commission and then 25 years later the Christopher Commission (dealing with the aftermath of the King verdict and rioting) reveal the simple truth that we are a racially divided society and that racism is alive and well.


Would it come as a surprise to learn that the violence breaking out in the Nidorf juvenile hall was between different races?  Would it also surprise you to learn that additional racial violence has been plaguing the Jail facilities throughout Los Angeles County?  As so many have said, prisons (even if we choose the nicer sounding words like “juvenile hall” or “correctional institutions”) are a sort of microcosm of the larger society.


© 2006, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.