“When you get kids into a good facility, with good teachers, and away from their gang friends, you can make sure they’re not on drugs, and they make up a lot of credits in school.”
At first glance, Unit 800’s classroom looks like any ordinary high-school classroom. It has all the usual stuff: bookshelves, white board, map of the world, and around a dozen student desks. Pinned near the ceiling on two walls are portraits of notable Hispanics and African-Americans — artists, authors, astronauts — along with short descriptions of respective accomplishments. On a pizza-box-sized piece of white paper posted to the wall opposite the door in giant black letters is the message, “Classroom Rules: Respect & Responsibility.”
One clue that this is not a typical classroom is the poster on the wall over the teacher’s desk. It depicts a spotted black panther, glowering at the viewer with intense green eyes, accompanied by a more literal threat: “If you’re asking for it, you’re going to get it.” Another clue is the students’ attire. Seated in a circle, ten teenagers, some in sweatshirts and pants, others in T-shirts and shorts, are wearing some combination of the same two colors: bright orange and dark blue. On their feet are white socks and standard-issue orange slippers.
Unit 800 is the “living unit” of the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility for boys. The facility shares Meadowlark Drive with Juvenile Court and a number of other juvenile delinquent services, including a medical clinic, probation office, and other detention facilities, all tucked away along one edge of Birdland, the neighborhood that occupies the acute angle of south of the junction of Interstate 805 and Highway 163. All its streets are named after birds.
On a warm day at the end of June, three volunteers from the Juvenile Court Book Club converge at the facility to host their last meeting before a two-month summer hiatus. The club, founded by Juvenile Court referee Maria Arroyo, will celebrate its 20th anniversary in September. Now retired, Arroyo was fairly new to the bench in 1996, when she happened upon an article about prison guards in Boston who had started a book club with adult female inmates.
“It gave them self-esteem,” Arroyo says. “The women quoted in the story were saying, ‘Now that I’ve actually finished a book and discussed it with people, I feel like I can go out and get a job.’”
While visiting the locations to which she sentenced law-breaking minors, Arroyo spotted a few sparsely populated bookshelves at the Girls Rehabilitation Facility. “I’m a reader myself, and I was thinking it would be really nice to stock these with books for the girls to read in their free time; then along came this article, and I thought, We can stock these with books and try this book-club idea.”
Unlike the Girls Rehabilitation Facility, which is a minimum-security facility and therefore more like a strict dorm than a jail, Unit 800 is closer to the grown-up version of prison. The reception desk in the lobby is protected by bulletproof glass, and all personal effects (including purses, phones, and even digital audio recorders) must be left in a locker. To attend the meeting, I first had to pass a background check. At the front desk, I slip my driver’s license into the dish under the glass in exchange for a visitor’s badge. I’m given a quarter for a locker, and the man behind the glass requests that later, when I re-insert the key to collect my things and the locker spits out the quarter, I return the coin to him so someone else can use it. With nothing on me but a key to my locker, a pen, and a notepad, I am permitted to follow three book-club volunteers into the facility.
We walk down a corridor so long that its seeming endlessness is commented upon more than once. The hallway is lined on one side with blue doors, each of which leads to an individual cell. In these rooms, there are no televisions or electronic devices — books are one of the few things the adolescents here are allowed to bring inside. After passing a surveillance room in which a handful of guards monitor security-camera screens, we reach the right door. Our police escort unlocks it, and we enter a wide-open space, a hub that connects other hallways and rooms.
Three guards stand behind a high desk. They overlook the space, which is empty save for two young wards of the court, who are talking and laughing with each other as they prepare a pitcher of Kool-Aid over a metal sink. We are led past the guards and the kids and into the classroom. After traversing the institutional coldness of blue-painted doors and white linoleum floors, the classroom is a shock of warm colors.
All youth at the four facilities served by the Juvenile Court Book Club are required to attend Students on Academic Rise academy — usually called by its acronym SOAR, run by the San Diego County Office of Education. Each facility has its own teacher, and kids attend class onsite Monday through Friday. The curriculum is designed to adhere to that of the rest of the public school system. Arroyo attributes San Diego County’s “excellent statistics” regarding recidivism in minors to such programs. “About 70 percent of first-time offenders do not reoffend,” she says. “When you get kids into a good facility, with good teachers, and away from their gang friends, you can make sure they’re not on drugs, and they make up a lot of credits in school.”
Unit 800’s teacher is a large man, several heads taller than anyone else in the room. His demeanor is simultaneously, “I’m your chill friend” and “Don’t push it, punk.” While the volunteers join the boys in the circle, the teacher takes a seat at his desk beneath the panther poster and keeps a steady eye on his wards, but does not speak for the duration of the meeting.
After Arroyo, the book club’s first volunteers 20 years ago were two attorneys — one defense, the other prosecution. Student participation was voluntary. “It was, ‘Whoever wants to come, come on over,’ and it ended up being ten of the girls and three of us,” Arroyo remembers. In contrast, recent meetings at the Girls Rehabilitation Facility include around 25 girls, and volunteers come from more than just the legal profession.
The club’s first ever book selection was A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, by Michael Dorris. The 1987 book tells the story of three generations of women in a Native American family.
“It’s one of my all-time favorite books now,” Arroyo says. “That was the first time I had read it, and I keep it as a memory. The way the kids took to it was great, and the volunteers loved the experience.”
Now the selected books are tied into classroom assignments. “We work with the teachers, and it’s much better. The teachers have the kids read the book and get them ready to discuss it.”
The leader of today’s discussion is Tadd Mannino, a retired firefighter. Slender and short, with a neatly trimmed goatee and closely cropped silver hair, Mannino has been volunteering for the club for almost two years.
“I was looking for something to do with literacy,” he says. After dismissing the idea of teaching illiterate adults to read as “too cumbersome,” he searched online for other options. “This country is awesome — yet if you blow your first chance at a free education, the only way to grow is to self-educate. I looked for where I could help with that and found the Juvenile Court Book Club.”
The club operates on a budget of between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, comprising individual and organizational donations and sponsorships in the form of books provided. For example, one person donated sets of To Kill a Mockingbird, and another repeatedly sponsors Holocaust books. A regular sponsor out of Coronado, Friends of Children United Society, partners in fundraising. The budget covers the cost of books (every student gets to keep his or her copy after reading), related movies or audiotapes, tutoring materials, and nominal college scholarships (around $500), intended for buying textbooks.
For the kids, a major perk of book-club meetings are the snacks brought in by volunteers. By the time the boys enter, each desk has been laden with a cup of Kool-Aid and a paper plate containing a handful of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and four Oreos.
This month’s selection for the boys was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, Maus, by Art Spiegelman, a Holocaust book that portrays Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. The girls in Unit 70 read Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth E. Wein, a fictional tale of a young American woman taken prisoner by Germany during World War II.
A year’s worth of book selections must include at least one of each of the following subject or genre: Shakespeare, poetry, nonfiction, and the Holocaust. As for the Holocaust books, Arroyo implemented this requirement because she believes it’s an effective way to teach empathy.
“It’s not necessarily taught in schools, and I think it’s very important for the younger generation to be aware that [the Holocaust] even occurred, so that they can identify with somebody being treated so horribly, and learn to show sympathy and empathy.”
Mannino begins by asking the boys to introduce themselves and explain why they read the book. Most of the boys slouch in their desks, two lean forward to rest on its top, and one is fidgety — his right leg bounces, and he is the most vocal of the group. I’ll call him Nick. Most of the boys have a similar, noncommittal answer to the lead question, along the lines of, “It’s cool ’cause it’s got pictures,” or, “At first it was boring, but then it got interesting.” But a few stood out. One says, “I read this book because it talks about how people survive. It’s cool, you know?” Another says, “I read this book because I’m actually interested in the survivors of the Holocaust, I’ve read other books about it.” When it’s Nick’s turn, he says, “I read the book ’cause they told us to. And I like the food.”
After introductions, Mannino begins to lecture about the history of the book; at one point he walks to the map and points out Poland. Eventually, he directs a question at the group. He asks, “How far away, I mean in time, does this seem to you?” One teen mumbles, “Long enough to not have hard feelings about it. It doesn’t affect us. But it was cool to read about.”
Another volunteer, Jodi Cleesattle, pipes in, “Why do you think the Poles were depicted as pigs?” Nick is quick with a response that prompts a few snickers, “Because they have a lot of cops in Poland?”
Cleesattle, an attorney who handles employment law at the Office of the Attorney General, has been volunteering with the book club for over three years. Most often, she works with the girls at the Girls Rehabilitation Facility.
“When I lead discussions, it’s not structured; it’s not like I come in with a book club list of questions or anything,” Cleesattle says. “But we’ll talk about characters they liked or what they think about the relationships or decisions a character made, and the students really have a lot of insight.”
After his quip, Nick asks a sincere question: “Why didn’t the Jews just say they weren’t Jewish?” This prompts swift responses from the adults. Mannino explains how neighbors reported on each other. Nick responds, “That reminds me of what happened in the ’50s, when they were accusing people of Communism.”
A few other boys speak up. One says, “There were rules of war, right? And then Germany broke them?” Another answers with a question, “Didn’t they make Germany sign a contract in World War I saying they wouldn’t try to take over the world?”
One boy, who has been silent up until this point, says, “I think, ‘What if it were Mexicans, you know?’ I mean, if what happened to the Jews would happen to Mexicans. It trips me out, you know?”
Bobbie Kunath is the club’s longest running volunteer, having regularly attended meetings for 19 years. She says the experience of discussing the book is as important as the reading. Kunath recalls a conversation with a teacher after a girls’ group discussion in which two female volunteers strongly disagreed.
“After it was all done, one of the kids said to the teacher, ‘That was really interesting.’ And when the teacher asked why, the kid said, ‘They didn’t hit each other.’ She was used to, you know, you have a discussion and disagree, and you slug somebody. She was amazed that these ladies were so polite, even though they disagreed.”
Just as the women handling their disagreement was beneficial for the girls, Kunath says, “Male volunteers are very important for the boys to observe, to see how a man deals with things. But we have both male and female volunteers in both [girls’ and boys’ facilities].” Kunath says, “The girls are much more outgoing and much more eager to join in the conversation. The boys sometimes hang back a little, like maybe it might not be cool to do this.” Kunath echoes a sentiment that every volunteer has shared in one way or another: “They are all so much smarter than you think they’ll be when you walk in the door.”
The volunteers never learn the students’ last names, what led them to be detained, or the duration of their sentence.
“Occasionally, a child will burst into tears and just come out with it, but that’s very unusual,” says Kunath. “That way, we deal with them on a level playing field.” When leading a discussion, it’s important to convey to the students that all ideas are valid. Kunath expresses the benefit of reading and openly discussing books from a student’s point of view: “They’re, like, ‘I can read this book and freely give my opinion, and here’s this woman who respects my opinion. Maybe at home, a parent says, ‘I don’t care what you’re reading. Who cares what you think.’”
After a brief surge in the discussion, the boys quiet down. The volunteers respond by asking more direct questions. Two boys agree that the best part in the book is when an internment-camp prisoner starves himself to save food for his wife. One adds, “I liked that even after it gets stolen, he starts all over.”
Nick, who between snarky comments repeated requests for more Cheetos that are ignored, and genuine, historically accurate insights, continues to be the most vocal of the group. “All governments think what they’re doing is right. And then they look back…. That’s how I think the cops today will feel in the future,” he says.
The boy to his left says, “When police in Mexico arrest you, they hit you.”
When asked what the book makes him think of now, Nick says, “Donald Trump.”
The final question, from Mannino: “What do you think about tragedy? Is it something to be shared, embraced, or processed and let go of?”
As with the first question, he asked for answers to be given around the room. Nick is the first to respond, “Learn from the experience, but don’t dwell on the past.”
A boy who had earlier revealed he is no longer in contact with his family due to gang issues says, “It is what it is, and F what it was.”
The next kid offers, “It’s good to go through tragedies; you learn from them.”
Another adds, “Live on… it happened.”
Some choose not to answer. The last one to share shrugs, but the look in his eyes is earnest. “Pick up some knowledge that will help you in the future.”