Last year, Kyle Simpson created his own website. He learned how to code and design while serving time for second degree murder at a state youth prison in Ventura County.
He had plans to take online college courses, get a degree and a job one day.
But in March he was transferred to the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility in Otay Mesa ahead of a big change to the state’s juvenile correctional system. Now, he spends most of his time watching movies and playing video games.
“Playing the PlayStation is not going to help me progress and become a better person, a better man,” Simpson said.
For decades, courts have placed youth who commit serious crimes, like murder or violent assault, in youth prisons located throughout California. On June 30, the state’s remaining four youth detention facilities will close, the culmination of a longtime effort by juvenile justice reformers to put an end to a system with an extensive history of mismanagement and abuse.
The change was first announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 and codified two years later in state law. Despite the significant lead time, youth advocates say counties, including San Diego, are behind in offering programs and services to youth that match what the state provided.
Simpson, who was learning computer coding at the Ventura facility, said he’s disappointed with the lack of programs at East Mesa, particularly a lack of job training opportunities.
“It’s been frustrating, because we had a lot to do [in Ventura]. We kind of had a set schedule,” he said. “And there was a variety of things that we could do from coding to construction to landscaping, administrative jobs, even dog grooming. And back over here, it’s just, like, we’re in the same building all day. We do college for two hours. And I mean, really, that’s it.”
Simpson, 20, has six months left on his sentence. When he was 17, he was the passenger in a car that ran over and killed a young man.
The legislation that set in motion the closure of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, or DJJ, required each county to come up with a plan for returning youth. San Diego County’s plan, drawn up in 2021, is short on specifics about programs, but emphasizes the benefits of keeping incarcerated young people near home.
“National research has demonstrated that youth in long-term custody experience the best outcomes when they reside close to home, remain in regular contact with supportive adults, and the local agencies can prepare for their reentry on their first day in custody,” it says.
Despite the state system’s troubled history, DJJ had made important reforms over the last several years and the programs it was offering were more robust and rehabilitation focused than what county probation departments can offer, said Frankie Guzman, senior director of the Youth Justice Team at the National Center for Youth Law.
“Most counties developed … and identified juvenile hall as a place to house kids long-term,” he said. “That is a terrible thing— to suggest we put kids in maximum security short-term detention facilities.
Probation departments, he added, “have never dealt with kids with this level of need.”
In San Diego, youth who’ve been transferred from DJJ’s sprawling rural campuses have been sent to East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility. Located in Otay Mesa near the border, it’s a small, nondescript prison-like building with a yard surrounded by barbed-wire fencing.
The winding road that leads to East Mesa passes an immigrant detention facility, a state prison, two jails and the sheriff’s department’s shooting range.
A 2019 report by the San Diego County Juvenile Justice Commission, which conducts annual inspections of juvenile halls, noted the facility’s proximity to the prison — “visually perpetuating the ‘school to prison’ pipeline” — and the shooting range, observing that “youth out for recreation can hear gunfire, which could certainly exacerbate the mental health issues experienced by approximately 70% of these youth.”
Michael Lucero, a lived experience mentor with the Prison Education Program, which provides guidance to youth in San Diego juvenile halls, said he’s discouraged by what he’s seen at East Mesa.
“They’re in a very confined place, very small,” he said. “They don’t have the same activities, the same resources.”
D’Andre Brooks, who also mentors youth who’ve been transferred back to East Mesa, said the facility isn’t ideal.
“That juvenile hall is built like a regular state prison,” he said. “When you look at DJJ, you had all kind of land, all kind of grass, all kind of space.
“When you’re in a prison setting that definitely can take a toll,” he added. “It’s definitely going to take some adapting.”
Guzman noted the legislation that closed DJJ envisioned counties creating a range of therapeutic settings and not using juvenile halls as a default.
“A ranch or a camp,” he said. “Not cells. The statute calls for a less-restrictive setting and programming.”
While the probation department’s 19-page Juvenile Justice Realignment Plan is sparse on specifics, it does mention the goal of softening East Mesa’s rough edges.
“The Probation Department is obtaining youth input and assessing options to make the setting of these units more homelike, trauma-informed, developmentally appropriate, and comfortable for longer commitments,” the plan says.
Though the plan was finalized in August of 2021, significant changes to East Mesa are yet to be made said Simpson and others who’ve visited the facility.
In March, San Diego defense attorney Mary Ellen Attridge petitioned a Superior Court judge to allow her client, a 19-year-old who’d been transferred to East Mesa from DJJ, to move to a program in Los Angeles due to the lack of programs at East Mesa.
In a motion asking the judge to consider the transfer, Attridge wrote that “no meaningful services” were being provided to her young client. A “typical day” at East Mesa, she wrote, started with breakfast from 7:30 to 8 a.m., recreation time from 8 to 9:30 a.m., online college classes from 9:30 to 11 a.m., and from 11 a.m. on, free time.
“Essentially, [name redacted] will spend the balance of his day watching TV and playing video games,” Attridge wrote.
The judge agreed to let Attridge’s client transfer to a Los Angeles program called Hoops for Change, which promised to provide educational opportunities, including training in computer coding. An affiliated program had “secured provisional admittance” for the young man at UCLA.
“The closure of DJJ was known to San Diego County, yet pitifully little has been done to set up programming for youths returning to our county,” Attridge argued in the court filing.
Attridge told Voice of San Diego that a couple other attorneys representing youth at East Mesa have reached out to her about filing similar motions to get their clients transferred.
“In the meanwhile, I hear there is a lack of program availability and massive discontent,” she said.
A list of programs offered at East Mesa, provided to Voice by a probation department spokesperson, includes therapeutic offerings, like a mindfulness group and a restorative justice circle. There’s an emphasis on developing life skills, including emotional literacy and problem-solving skills.
There are only four courses currently offered remotely through Southwestern College: English, Philosophy, Art and Communication.
Simpson said it’s not enough.
“When I left [DJJ], I was hoping to be able to continue doing college and getting a job,” he said. He had been learning coding and graphic design and had developed a website. At East Mesa, computer use is restricted, he said.
“They kind of don’t trust us at all to do anything,” he said. “It’s just, like, there’s only so much that we could do.”
Tamika Nelson, San Diego County’s chief probation officer, said her department is slowly ramping up programs.
“It was a big change for the state to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to shut down DJJ and now we’re shifting those responsibilities back to the local probation departments,'” Nelson said. “So, with any change, there comes some anxiety and a feeling of being unprepared.”
Though youth returning from DJJ have committed more serious crimes, like any other young person who enters the juvenile justice system, the focus is on rehabilitation, not punishment.
“The youth coming back now have these individualized rehabilitation plans,” Nelson said. “The youth is included in that plan, they get a voice in that their families get a voice.”
Nelson emphasized that the probation department has been working with partner agencies, like the District Attorney’s office, public defender, the San Diego County Office of Education and others to be ready to serve returning youth.
In April, Nelson told the Union-Tribune that the probation department had struggled to find agencies to provide programs and services to youth returning from DJJ and only in February did the department finally award a contract to South Bay Community Services.
“So right now, what we have is what I would consider a foundational program, because what we don’t want for our youth is to set them up for failure,” she told Voice.
Nelson used the analogy of going off to college: “You just don’t go into your more advanced courses; you get some basic courses before you can go into your advanced courses. So that’s similar here with the programming that we do while we have the basics. Now we need to get them ready to be able to participate and engage with our partners.”
Lucero from the Prison Education Program said youth tell him they’re hungry for more tangible offerings, like job training. He said he’s talked to other mentors who share his concerns.
“We’re limited in what we can do, you know, a few hours, just having a little bit of influence,” he said. “There’s a lot of time when we’re not there. And, in all actuality, I’m not teaching them the job skills. I’m not teaching them a trade.”
Brooks, who participated as a community representative in the committee that put together the county’s plan for returning youth, said the goal was to ensure as seamless a transition as possible.
“Everyone was operating in good faith,” Brooks said. “They wanted to make sure individuals got the same programming as at the DJJ.”
Like Lucero, Brooks said he’s been impressed with the programs that provide mentorship and life-skills training. He said he plans to talk to the young people he works with about what they’d like to see as far as job training and take that back to the committee, which meets quarterly.
Brooks said East Mesa’s programming is a work in progress, but added that there should be a sense of urgency if offerings fall short.
“We need to speed things up to make sure we can provide what’s needed,” he said.