Monterey Bay Justice Project

Education during incarceration: An inside look at Monterey County’s Juvenile Hall

By Jacqueline Mendez and Mariah Berry

Schooling behind bars can pose a major challenge for students and teaching staff. In a building more than 50 years old, the staff at Wellington M. Smith Jr. Juvenile Hall is doing its best to work with what they have to help incarcerated youth complete high school.

Most students who are sent to juvenile hall have had major academic setbacks, in addition to run-ins with the law. This makes the Wellington M. Smith Jr. school a learning environment that is very different from other schools.

“The typical day is not typical,” said Chandi Wood, senior director for Alternative Education Programs.

A painting signaling the education wing of the facility. The wing includes three classrooms where students study traditional high school subjects including Math, History and English.

Classes are offered in traditional high school subject areas and at various grade levels. The school follows the Common Core State Standards.

The students coming into the facility have a wide range of academic skill levels. The teaching staff has to be flexible with their teaching styles and understand each individual student’s special needs.

“There's quite a few that come in as teenagers and cannot even read. I have a four year old that has better reading skills than a lot of these kids coming in. It's tragic,” said Julie Kenyon, Probation Services manager.

Wood echoed Kenyon’s observation.

“Most of these students are coming in here, are entering with a third grade, possibly below [reading level] and that’s a lot to be said about the education system as a whole,” said Wood.

Teachers at this school face a different set of challenges compared to other teachers in traditional school settings. Teachers and staff have to take precautions for every day, basic school activities.

Giving out assignments to students could be a potential danger. “Homework is an interesting piece. We have to be mindful about what they're allowed to take back to their room,” said Wood.

Basic school supplies, such as a pencil or pen can pose a threat to the safety of staff and students. “Some students can be allowed to write, some can't. It just depends on their situation and what they're here for,” said Wood.

Students who are sent to the facility have tried regular high school, alternative schooling programs or continuation schools and have had academic and behavior problems. Once it is determined it is not safe for the student to stay in one of these programs, because of potential harm to themselves or others, they are sent to juvenile hall.

“I hate to call us the ‘last straw’ but we really are. There’s nowhere else to go beyond us in education,” said Wood.

This group of students comes with baggage of truancy and crime that teachers and staff have to handle. “The probation [division] helps us with behaviors and management because we are working with a clientele that comes in with that package,” said Wood.

The school operates under the Monterey County Office of Education which acts as its school district. Funding comes from the same sources as traditional school districts including local, state and federal funds.

“I hate to call us the ‘last straw’ but we really are. There’s nowhere else to go beyond us in education,” said Wood.

The school has a $2 million budget that is shared with the Youth Center, according to officials. The amount of funding received is determined by a formula that combines student population and attendance rates.

Monterey County’s Juvenile Hall school has the highest graduation rate among Juvenile Halls in the Tri-County area.

According to data from the California Department of Education, 20 percent of students who attended the school during the 2015-16 academic year went on to earn their High School diploma and 13 percent completed their GED.

Similar to any other public school, the youth at the juvenile hall are still required to attend class Monday through Friday. “Just like you can’t be truant at home, you can’t be truant here. We make you get out of your room and go to school,” said Kenyon.

The average stay varies depending on the severity of the crime committed. “It’s roughly about 15-20 days. Some could be here for a year, year and a half,” said Jose Ramirez, division director at Juvenile Hall for the Monterey County Probation Department.

“There’s one kid that’s been here for over two years, and the other one about 18 months,” said Kenyon. Both students are accused of homicide.

It can often be a difficult transition for certain individuals to come into this facility for reasons such as dependency on drugs or alcohol and mental illnesses.

There are also teens that are unwilling to give up their life of crime.

“I can’t want them to change more than they want to change. And that’s a bitter pill for me to swallow,” said Kenyon.

“We have quite a few here that are coming in off the streets and they’re completely off medication, they’re completely delusional. So it takes several weeks sometimes to get to a point of where you can start treating the mental illness,” said Kenyon.

Officer Christopher Holm shoots hoops in front of a mural created by Cal State Monterey Bay alumni. The incarcerated youth use these courts for recreation and officer led workouts.

Teachers, along with two additional teaching assistants and an officer, conduct lessons to those who suffer from mental illnesses in a separate learning environment known as the special day class.

“They have a very unique individualized education programming. Their needs are special and unique compared to rest of the population here,” said Wood.

Despite the challenges, officials think the juveniles that are sent to this facility are in desperate need of attention and care that was lacking in their lives.

“Believe it or not, they’re much better off here. Not all, but majority of them are better off here than going home. Sometimes they go home then runway and they’re back out there on the streets,” said Ramirez.

Most of these kids are coming from environments that lack structure. Coming to this facility that is very structured can actually help them thrive.

The kids spend the majority of their time outside of their rooms, only using them to sleep. The rest of their time is spent participating in multiple programs on top of their schooling.

The facility offers a wide range programs for the inmates that offer more information on topics such as alcohol and substance abuse, teen pregnancy, suicide, rape and victim impact. There also are programs that include arts and crafts, writing, gardening and training dogs from the S.P.C.A for adoption.

“The kids love going to programs, the more we give them, the more they want,” said Kenyon.

All of these programs operate out of one room within the facility that is also used for visitors and meals.

“Currently the way it is, we’re limited and there’s one unit with one day room and its multi-purpose, so we use it for dining, we use it for visiting, we use it for programs, school sometimes,” said Ramirez.

From the outside the Wellington M. Smith Jr. Juvenile Hall looks like a typical public school building. It has a total capacity of 114 inmates. More than half of the beds are in individual rooms that can house both boys and girls. The facility is currently operating at 42 percent capacity with roughly 2 to 3 staff per inmate.

Work will begin on a new facility sometime in June that would include individual space for visiting, schooling and dining, as well as rooms for attorney-client meetings and private counseling. The new facility will be located in the same area and is expected to be completed in the fall 2019.

“It’s going to be a completely different look -- a complete face lift and it’s not going to look like a detention facility from the street,” said Kenyon referring to the new plans that incorporate a more open layout with natural light and greenery.

The walls of the facility are decorated with puzzles completed by the students. Staff and volunteers have been purchasing puzzles for the kids to complete during their recreation time. Some are as old as 30 years and there are dozens scattered around the facility.