Some of the nation’s most hardened criminals call it home: It’s the L.A. County Men’s Central Jail, the largest jail in the free world. It houses some 5,000 inmates, and it’s no place for kids.
That’s exactly why START takes them there.
The Sheriff’s Teaching At-Risk Teens program gives at-risk youths a blunt, firsthand illustration of the consequences that can come from their choices, reminiscent of “Scared Straight,” the 1978 Oscar-winning documentary.
“It’s similar to that in a sense, but we put our own wrinkle into it,” says Deputy Paul Vargas, a 15-year deputy who has been in charge of START for the past five years.
The youths’ visits are conducted on Saturdays, and teens are referred to START through sheriff’s stations and other Sheriff’s Youth Foundation programs, like the Youth Activities League and the Vital Intervention Directional Initiative (VIDA).
“The kids come in the morning on a Saturday, and we treat the kids similarly to a paramilitary academy,” says Vargas. “We try to teach the kids structure, because they don’t have that.”
Before the youths are led into the jail, they are given some clues as to what to expect.
“We talk about the type of image that we have, what goes on in the jail, what inmates wear, what things these kids take for granted, like Mom’s cooking and sleeping in a bed with a comfortable pillow, privacy going to the restroom, privacy taking a shower. These kids don’t think about that,” Vargas said. “And then we start walking through the halls of the largest jail in the free world.”
When they get to the rooftop exercise yard, they meet inmates who tell the youths about life in jail. “The inmates give a brief introduction to what jail life would be like, and they show them: This isn’t a place for kids. It’s not a place for anybody.”
After the rooftop visit, the youths are — briefly and temporarily — locked in an empty cell, to get a taste of incarceration.
Vargas said START is an effective wake-up call for many of the 300 to 350 youths who participate each year. “I’d say 98 percent of the kids who come through end up crying at the end. They say, ‘I don’t want to come back here.’ They are very remorseful.”
For some, it’s a remarkable turning point.
“About a year ago I had a group of kids who came through, there were two boys and a girl,” Vargas said. “They didn’t care about anything. Nothing fazed them at the beginning, and toward the end you could tell that their demeanor had changed. And, a year later they became mentors of that same program that they went through, and they came through as mentors for that group. And they graduated from high school, too.”