After spending two nights with the young men at the Pine Grove Conservation Camp, a training and rehabilitation institution of the California Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), I received this message from the press liaison: “The main guy who approved your stay at Pine Grove told me that in his 34 years in the agency, no one has EVER done that before. In the past, the choices would have been 1) no, 2) hell no and 3) what is it about no that you don’t understand.”
While the approval was unusual, what is stranger is that no other journalists have sought to stay there. Frankly, I’m baffled — the young men were very nice, understanding, and open. I never felt threatened, even though the guard suggested I avoid getting boxed in. Speaking realistically, there are not many fights there. Gang affiliation exists but is kept down (compared to “the institution”, the main lockdown facilities).
I recorded interviews with a number of the men. Some of the stories are brutal — beatings, shootings, stabbings — but I’ve heard the same from soldiers and cops. Context is everything, and the context of the camp is not conducive to violence toward a visitor. Besides, a visiting journalist is a source of amusement, an entertainment, a novelty. As long as I’m not threatening, and I remain a novelty, I think that not only will I not be attacked, I’ll be defended in case I were attacked.