Juvenile facility not a good place to visit | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Juvenile facility not a good place to visit

The El Dorado County Juvenile Hall in Placerville is a tidy, compact, aging structure at the base of a hill in the county government center on Fair Lane Road. On approaching the site, it is possible to get a bird’s eye view of most of it – including the coiled razor wire that rings the two exercise yards.

Stuck in the middle of the wire are three or four rubber kickballs – a metaphor, perhaps, that says “Prison for kids.”

And that is exactly what we have here. Despite our best efforts to train, rehabilitate and nurture our children, it is sometimes necessary to remove a small portion of them from society while we ponder more serious solutions. That’s where Dan Segalas comes in.

“Some kids seem to idealize gangsters and people who engage in aggressive behavior,” said Segalas, the Deputy Chief Probation Officer for El Dorado County who acts as sort of a warden at the Juvenile Hall. “With a lot of them, you get the feeling that they accept the fact that they are someday going to be locked up. They see that as an achievement. But look around. This is no achievement. If I were a kid, I would never want to come here.”

Segalas and his small staff walk a fine line between punishment and rehabilitation on a daily basis. The juvenile justice business is quite a conundrum, and things only get more confusing when one takes a look inside Juvenile Hall.

Placerville’s Juvenile Hall – which serves all of El Dorado County, including South Lake Tahoe – is small, crowded and noisy. The cells are spartan, the exercise and cafeteria areas clean, but stark and colorless.

But Segalas and his staff are not stark and colorless. Despite their best efforts to present an atmosphere of no-nonsense discipline (which they do quite well), they also betray a hidden agenda. These people seem to actually care about the children inside the walls, and really do want the best for them.

But where does rehabilitation end and punishment begin? And how is it possible to fully serve the needs of the community in a facility that is obviously too crowded and understaffed?

El Dorado County has recently applied for a state grant that would fund construction of a new, larger juvenile facility next door to the current structure. Such a facility is certainly needed – El Dorado County Chief Probation Officer Ken Cater said juvenile arrests in the three-county area have increased 16 percent in the last decade, and one in five arrests involve a felony. Officials in El Dorado, Mono and Alpine counties say that the “at risk” juvenile population is expected to increase by more than 26 percent, to 34,780, by 2015.

There is no way that El Dorado County’s current 40-bed facility will be able to keep up with those needs. An outside consultant studied the facility recently, and determined that at least 52 beds would be needed by 2000 – and 80 beds by 2015. That is just a fact of life in a county where the population is growing in leaps and bounds – primarily on the west slope in communities such as Placerville, El Dorado Hills and Camino.

“We have a court-ordered cap of 40 juveniles,” Segalas said of the Placerville facility. “Earlier this month was the first time that we found that we could not comply with that cap. There were just no more kids we could release.”

On a visit to the facility earlier this week, there were 49 juveniles in custody – and there had been as many as 51 the week before. When such conditions exist, Juvenile Hall staff are forced to “triple up” some cells. That is, place a mattress in the middle of a regular two-bed cell and have three juveniles share the room.

This can cause problems. Some juvenile offenders have to be kept in isolation to begin with, due to behavioral problems. The state also mandates that juveniles must be allowed three hours of recreation per day – including one hour outdoors – no matter what the population. Placerville Juvenile Hall has only two, small recreation areas – each about the size of a large two-car garage – where all 40 youngsters must compete for space.

Inside, it’s not much better. A small one-hoop basketball court in the middle of the complex, where children must jostle for space on rainy days. A small cafeteria which seats 44.

“Luckily, some of the kids have to eat in their rooms, because they have been isolated for one reason or another,” Segalas said. “So we usually have enough room in the dining area.”

Out front is where the size of the facility really comes into focus. Right off the front lobby is the command center – a small, glass-enclosed room from which several staff members operate the entire facility. They lock and unlock electronic doors, monitor rooms via remote TV, man intercoms (each cell is equipped with one) and process incoming juveniles. There are always five or six staff members jostling for elbow room in the small space.

Off to the right and left are two small holding areas – little rooms with a bench and one glass wall. These rooms serve as holding areas, isolation wards, sick rooms and processing areas.

“It’s all we have,” Segalas said. “They are always in use.”

The facility also has a small school – two rooms of 20 desks each. In addition to regular school, several programs are taught there, including life skills, Alcoholics Anonymous, drug abuse programs, the Family Unification Program, church programs and many others.

Many of the kids actually seem to enjoy school. It beats sitting in a cell.

“They seem to do well after the first couple of days, when they get used to the structure,” said Sue Roth, the teacher in charge. “We have a lot of individualized programs here, and many of the students have commented that they do better in school here than they ever did before.

“Of course, most of the kids are here for only a short time.”

There are five teachers on staff. There is also a part-time nurse, and a small cafeteria staff. There are psychiatric services provided by County Mental Health, which provides a counselor once a week.

“In a lot of counties, juvenile hall is just a punishment mode. Kids are in there for a short time, to scare them, essentially. Then they go to a youth ranch or a camp.

“We don’t have youth ranches or camps in this county, because we don’t have the resources. So juveniles tend to spend longer periods of time in this facility. There are no intermediate options, and that puts a strain on everyone.”

Dave Colon, the Deputy Chief Probation Officer from South Lake Tahoe, has another perspective.

“I’ve been in some juvenile halls that are very depressing,” he said. “But in Placerville, it is not that way. Now, I would still never want to stay there. But the staff there tries real hard.

“It never ceases to amaze me the things that they are able to do with so few resources.”

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