As LA County ends solitary confinement for minors, artists step in to reimagine the SHU
Green paint covered tattoos on the girls' hands as they worked on the mural.
At Camp Joseph Scott, a juvenile detention center in Santa Clarita, five girls worked on the wall – some standing, some crouching – their arms occasionally crisscrossing as they painted the nature scene.
"I find it like a meditating type of therapy," said Anaceli, 17, who was five months into a seven-month sentence. (We're not using last names to protect the identities of the minors).
"It actually distracts your mind from being where we actually are for a couple of hours," she said. "So that's why I like coming here."
This building used to be a very undesirable destination. Just around the corner from the mural is a long hallway with 12 cells – each about the size of a parking spot, with just a bed and a small window. In the past, girls could be sent out of the dorms and into isolation, for a few hours or up to 30 days – only rarely allowed out into this common area.
Now, Los Angeles County – home to the nation's largest juvenile justice system – is phasing out the use of that kind of solitary confinement for minors. And so the probation department been tasked with reimagining the special housing units, or SHUs, that were used to keep young offenders in isolation.
The mural project at Camp Scott is one of several arts projects that have been enlisted to help enact that transformation. The change is part of an effort across the county to make juvenile detention centers less punitive and more therapeutic.
"Our question was to like, let’s reimagine something that’s more positive for what they see in here," said Joe Galarza, an artist with the Armory Center for the Arts, who worked with the girls on the mural.
All of the girls at Camp Scott – about 25 – are required to participate in this mural project. In recent months, staff at the facility painted the gray cinderblock walls pink and blue and added pink chairs and a television. Then this spring, the mural project got underway.
The artists taught the girls drawing and painting basics and worked with them to plan the design of the mural. It has a road and a tree with round blossoms that will carry the words "hope" and "perseverance." On one branch, a bird is perched, ready to take flight.
REIMAGINING THE SHU
The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted in May to effectively end the practice of placing incarcerated youth in solitary confinement, citing the many studies about psychological and physical damage of isolation. Under the new guidelines, isolation is only to be used in extreme cases and kids should be monitored and have access to a mental health worker.
"The hope is it’s a learning experience, as opposed to just strictly resolving the issue by locking the kid up behind a locked door and not having to deal with them," said interim probation chief Cal Remington.
The new rules took effect at Camp Scott and two other facilities on May 30, and will go into effect at the rest of the facilities by the end of September. The current SHUs are to be converted into "cooling down" areas. Probation is actually hoping to rebrand them as “hope centers.”
Just as this shift was getting underway, a cooperative of arts organizations was launching an initiative to provide programming to juvenile offenders year-round. And now, the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network is working with probation and the young offenders to reimagine the SHU.
"I appreciate the arts community and what they’ve done," Remington said. "And the timing was good in relation to coming up with these cool down areas."
Murals are going up in the four facilities with SHUs. At one site, artists are planning to coat the walls with chalkboard paint so kids can draw, write and reflect there. In another facility, kids are reflecting on the experience of solitary in creative writing classes.
Probation staff are undergoing training in how to diffuse situations and to be sensitive to the trauma kids in the system have faced. As solitary confinement is phased out, some officers worry about safety.
"Of course I think it’s a good idea to change the rules around it, but I don’t think they should eliminate it," said Natonya Cantlope, who works at Camp Scott.
She said she worries about the elimination of a SHU there are times when inmates get violent and need to be separated.
"It’s not normal, but it goes down," said Cantlope. "Them taking [solitary confinement] away from us completely? No, because it’s a lot of people that could get hurt."
Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, said concerns like this are a normal part of the change process.
"We operate in the universe of what we know, so when you haven’t seen a facility working effectively without solitary confinement, it becomes really hard to imagine it," said Feierman.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have ended the solitary confinement for minors in recent years. Feierman says that positive intervention techniques are key to ensuring that the transition away from the practice goes smoothly.
"So [that means] good programming, thoughtful responses when youth are having trouble, full schedules with things that young people want to do," Feierman said.
MORE THAN MURALS
There are three juvenile halls, where young offenders are held before sentencing, and 12 camps currently open in L.A. County. Artists with the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network are working in 10 of those sites – aiming to keep schedules full by providing visual art, drumming, theater, poetry, creative writing classes and more.
The network is made up of the Armory Center for the Arts, Actors' Gang, Coalition for Engaged Education, InsideOut Writers, Rhythm Arts Alliance, Street Poets, Inc., Unusual Suspects Theatre Company, WriteGirl/Bold Ink Writers and Jail Guitar Doors.
"We’re so eager to integrate arts both as a diversion and also as part of a successful re-entry strategy for the kids coming out," said Kaile Shilling, executive director of the network. "Putting arts front and center, before, during and after helps."
The programming is taking place in the afternoon or evening hours in 11-week cycles over the coming year. The county is field testing the programs at these sites, with an eye toward a new juvenile facility that will open in the spring. Campus Kilpatrick will have a "trauma-informed" approach, focusing less on discipline and more on rehabilitation. It will not have a SHU at all. And the L.A. County Arts Commission is working with probation to embed arts at core of the curriculum as part of the rehabilitation process.
"I’ve seen over the years the ebb and flow of different theories of how to handle kids who are detained," said Sherry Gold, justice deputy for board supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who co-authored the motion restricting the use of solitary. "It’s my opinion that it’s about time that we’re recognizing that arts are a very important part of a program."
At Camp Scott, the mural project is starting to change the atmosphere on the campus. One girl said that the painting is relaxing and helps her blow off steam. Another said that having the mural in the SHU makes the space feel more peaceful and less like a prison.
Since participation was required at the facility, artists Galarza and Nery Gabriel Lemus said that not all of the girls were thrilled to be there. Some started to look forward to it over time, and picked up skills to improve their painting and drawing technique. But even for those who never got into it, there were valuable lessons.
"Everything is interconnected," said Limas. "Sometimes it’s not just about art, per se. Sometimes it’s just about being able to focus on something and get your mind off of the negativity."
Anaceli is set to go home in June and she says while she’s painting, she dreams of turning her life around once she’s out.
"Engaging yourself in it makes you think a lot of positive things like, do I want to continue my life like the way I was living? Or do I want to become clean and live my life like a normal person?"
The girls completed the mural last week and theater workshops are set to start there later this summer.