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anta Clara County Juvenile Hall Target of Probe
By San Jose Mercury
Published: 03/18/2003


The federal government is investigating whether the staff at the Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall has used excessive force against inmates -- surprising officials who pride themselves on promoting juvenile justice reforms and satisfying youths who have reported being beaten.
Investigators with the civil rights division of the Department of Justice are headed to San Jose to examine the hall and interview inmates.
The news comes as judges, prosecutors and community activists are working to improve what is already considered a model juvenile justice system. 'We're there to protect our kids, not to do them harm,'' said Supervisor Blanca Alvarado. 'We believe when the DOJ concludes its investigation we're going to get a clean bill of health.''
The county acknowledged the investigation late February 26, after calls from the Mercury News. Casey Stavropoulos, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, later confirmed there is an ``open investigation.''
Since 1998, three claims have been filed alleging abuse at the hall, which is run by the county's probation department. One of the claims led to a lawsuit resulting in a $13,500 settlement in 2001.
The alleged victim in that case, Rudy Ortiz, said his mother was among the first to call the FBI and complain about conditions in the hall, where Ortiz was locked up for stealing her car. Other parents have also talked to federal investigators.
Now a 20-year-old college student in Santa Cruz, Ortiz reported being beaten in his cell by a counselor in April 2000. He admitted that he had mouthed off and lied about attending an exercise session, but was shocked when a counselor ordered his cellmate to leave, he said, and began punching him in the face.
In his claim for damages, Ortiz alleged that the counselor's fists kept coming at him, even as he struggled to hug his bed for protection. He said his head was slammed into the ground before he was handcuffed and thrown into a door frame, losing consciousness and fracturing his collarbone.
'I was never scared of the kids, it was always the counselors,'' Ortiz said. 'I felt like they could do whatever they wanted -- and it was like the most helpless feeling in the world.'' Ortiz said he saw staff throw other youths down stairs and turn security cameras off ``so they could manhandle the kids.''
In one case, in June 2000, a mentally troubled 14-year-old boy from San Jose had his arm broken by a counselor, court documents allege. The boy was reportedly disciplined after a verbal confrontation with another young inmate. His claim stated: 'As the claimant was pushed up against the wall by the counselor, the counselor grabbed the youth's left hand and twisted it behind the youth's back until it snapped. He continued twisting it even after the claimant complained of excruciating pain. The counselor then put handcuffs on claimant, picked him up from the floor.''
The boy's left arm was in a cast from the base of his fingers to a few inches past his elbow when he met with a lawyer. His claim was rejected, and a lawsuit was not filed because the boy ran away and disappeared, said his attorney, Fernando Zazueta.
These incidents are a stark contrast to the San Jose facility's reputation for teaching delinquent youths a lesson while protecting young people who are often victims of previous abuse and neglect.
In October, the Youth Law Center -- a highly regarded legal advocacy group based in San Francisco -- conducted its own inspection and concluded that staff were ``highly professional in their dealings with youth, their exercise of judgment, and their documentation of daily occurrences.''
The Law Center found a 'relaxed social climate'' and 'were impressed that safety and security in the facility appear well-maintained without resort to chemical restraints, lengthy lock-downs or more than minimal use of mechanical restraints.''
More recently, the Annie E. Casey Foundation -- which has launched juvenile justice reforms across the country, including in Santa Clara County -- found the hall to be 'one of the nation's best,'' Alvarado said.


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