Los Prietos Boys Camp
The Straight and Narrow
Los Prietos Turns Young Lives Around
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Andy Paddock was headed down a path, and it wasn’t a very straight or narrow one. The Santa Maria teen had been on probation since age 13. He was a junior in high school but only had the credits of a freshman. He fought with his mother, hung out with a rough crowd, was on house arrest, and was addicted to heroin.
It wasn’t long before the law caught up with him yet again, this time because he cut off his house-arrest bracelet. But instead of heading back to Juvenile Hall, he ended up at Los Prietos Boys Camp.
For the now–18-year-old Paddock, it was like being transported to another country. It certainly was another culture. Los Prietos operates like a boot camp, with strict curfews, work schedules, and enforced school attendance. About 80 boys live there at any time, ages ranging from 13 to 18, all dressed in the uniform of crisp collared shirts and pressed slacks — blue for the older boys, brown for the younger ones. The whole place is about structure, structure, structure. “My first month there, I was always in trouble,” Paddock remembered, “but eventually, I caught on.”
Los Prietos Boys Camp
The morning I first visited Los Prietos, I went to speak at a job fair the county education office had sponsored. The boys impressed me with the sincere, respectful way they spoke, shaking my hand and addressing me formally. When they walked in the room, they removed their hats, some revealing tattoos on their young faces. But they stood up straight and looked me in the eye. They asked sharp questions about my day-to-day job, how much vacation time I got, and how much I was paid. Interesting behavior, I thought, from a group of supposed criminal bad boys.
It was a few weeks later while covering a South Coast Task Force on Gangs meeting that I became convinced this story needed to be told. A group of Los Prietos teens performed a well-choreographed play called The Drama Kings. In quick staccato and with few props, they told their life stories — how emotional pain and loneliness drove them into gangs, how drugs filled the void left by hunger, how their parents weren’t around to make them go to school.
It was a moving, impressive performance. But just as impressive was how the group handled the questions from the Task Force panel and audience members. The boys responded with maturity and respect about their hopes for the future. They sounded just like all boys their age, with a wide range of dreams. One told of how he hoped to head to City College. Another, how he planned to work as a tree trimmer. But they all pressed upon the politicians and community leaders the need for more programs like those offered at Los Prietos.
In the last few years, the County Probation Department, which runs Los Prietos, has suffered some of the most intense budget cuts of any department in the county. In 10 years, it has lost more than 100 positions — 25 percent of its personnel. But the success of the camp has impressed the Board of Supervisors enough to always provide enough funding to keep it alive.
By Paul Wellman
Los Prietos Boys Camp
Basic Training in the Forest
To say Los Prietos is off the beaten path would be accurate. Head up Highway 154, over the hill, and down toward Santa Ynez, and after hanging a right on Paradise Road and winding five or so miles east, you’ll come upon the 17.4 acres of U.S. National Forest land that has operated as the camp since the mid 1940s. “The separate location is great for us,” explains Dean Farrah, a tall, husky man who has been the director of Los Prietos for the last two years or so. “It makes it difficult for them to walk away. And a lot of kids have not been in this environment before.”
None of the boys are here by choice. A judge has sent them to Los Prietos instead of to Juvenile Hall based in part on recommendations from the Probation Department. They’ve all committed a variety of crimes, from robbery to assault and battery, for which they are required to serve anywhere from 120- to 189-day sentences.
Between 75 and 80 percent of the boys have gang terms or conditions, and similar percentages have a history of drug or alcohol issues. Santa Barbarans make up 50 percent of the group, the rest coming from the Lompoc and Santa Maria areas. Most of them lack basic social skills. For the staff, it often means teaching 16- and 17-year-olds basic life skills: good manners, how to make a bed, and how to do homework. “These young men are looking through a different lens than you and I,” Farrah said.
Los Prietos Boys Camp
The goal of Los Prietos is this: to have the boys return to their communities — to our community — as responsible members of society, teaching them discipline, responsibility, and respect. “In our view, it’s a priceless potential to take a taxpayer liability and turn them into a taxpayer,” Farrah said.
The daily life at Los Prietos is regimented: Wake up at 6 a.m., use the latrine, then 30-40 minutes of calisthenics followed by cleanup, breakfast, and into the classroom by 8 a.m. Lunch, dinner, and the additional training and education programs all adhere to a strict schedule. Lights are out by 10 p.m. While the discipline rubs some of the boys the wrong way — after all, what teenager likes being disciplined? — many of them begin to realize why it happens. “They piss me off a lot,” said one Santa Maria teen, “but they are also helping me with my personal life.”
Inside the dorms, everything is orderly: single beds down the middle of the room, bunk beds lining the walls. The latrine is wide open, and privacy is quite limited. The dorms are air-conditioned and fitted with computers for the boys to work on school projects or résumés. Gang members are forced into close quarters with rivals. “They have to live with each other and learn to respect each other,” said Jim Clark, a 30-year vet as an officer at the camp. Ribbons and plaques are displayed on a wall, the awards boys have won at fairs and competitions.
Privilege is gained from good performance. If the group as a whole is doing well, they might be allowed to see a movie. A gym is available for recreation a good portion of the weekend. Getting gold stars for anything from behavior to a clean bunk might lessen the amount of time a boy has to spend at the camp. Getting caught with gang materials or getting into fights and other mischief might extend the amount of time. Less serious offenses can be worked off through a redemption process, while more egregious offenses can’t be. Boys with three straight weeks of good behavior can earn a fourth. They can turn a 180-day commitment into four-and-a-half months or a 120-day commitment to 90.
By Paul Wellman
Los Prietos provides structure to boys who have often never had it in their lives. They also get a chance to be involved in community events, like constructing the Fiesta stage.
And then there is Los Robles High School, a fully accredited school on the Los Prietos campus. Each boy is required to attend full-time, and the only option, frankly, is success. Before they start, each boy takes an assessment test to ensure he enters at the right level. Some of the boys, according to head liaison teacher Daniel Schradermeier, begin with only three or four credits. “For a lot of kids, this is the first time they’ve gone to school five days a week,” said Schradermeier, who has taught at Los Robles for 21 years. This is a serious problem, since statistics show that if a person doesn’t have a high-school education, his chances of going to prison increase eight-fold.
Los Robles is designed to make it possible for each teen to catch up with his class. Andy Paddock, for example, was missing two years of credits when he began, but by snagging extra credits whenever he could, he ended up graduating while he was still at Los Prietos. “I just hit the books and graduated high school,” he said. “It was something I thought I’d never do.”
The teachers keep them busy with reading and working on projects, give clear instructions, and set clear expectations. Teachers meet weekly with most kids, shaping the study to each individual need. In the afternoons, there is a special program for students such as Paddock who need to make up credits. At one of my visits, nine boys were enrolled in that afternoon program. Two boys were currently taking college classes online.
Since 2006-2007, Los Robles has had 171 high school graduates, averaging about 40 a year. “For some of these boys,” DA Joyce Dudley said, “it was something they did not believe they would ever be able to achieve.” Others, once they’re released, return to the high school from whence they came, all caught up on their credits. Recently, 13 young graduates of Los Robles enrolled in the fall quarters at Santa Barbara City College and Allan Hancock College, 10 of them using scholarship funds available through a program specially designed for Los Robles students. “If they go to Juvenile Hall, they just lay on their bunks,” Schradermeier said.
Teens learn job skills at Los Prietos, like repairing donated computers that are given to low-income families or cooking in a kitchen.