As Don Meyer walked across a patchy field of grass and unlocked the weathered doors to Camp Kilpatrick Juvenile Detention Facility, tucked in the Malibu hills off South Encinal Canyon Road, his words sounded hopeful.
With 47 years of experience in law enforcement and probation, Meyer believes the camp—slated to be demolished in March and rebuilt in November—will soon offer a break from outdated and ineffective approaches to rehabilitate incarcerated youths.
“We are going to see a huge shift in the way we do things and in the way we look at reformation,” said Meyer, who as Assistant Chief of Probation oversees Los Angeles County’s 14 juvenile probation camps. “If we are successful, I predict that eight out of 10 kids will reform and will not be a repeat offender.”
What’s happening in Camp Kilpatrick has the potential to change the lives not just of inmates and staff in the local camp, but across the country, many experts believe. The camp’s 125-room dormitory will be torn down through a $48 million renovation, as the camp switches to a new system of rehabilitation, the Missouri Model. Dubbed the “Missouri Miracle,” this model focuses on small groups and positive reinforcement resulting in them having one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country.
Under the new model, juveniles would be housed in groups of 12 instead of dormitories of 80 or 120. They would remain in those groups throughout the day, sharing therapy sessions, classes, meals and other activities.
Break from the past
The new initiative, dubbed the “LA Model,” is aimed at correcting past failures. The Los Angeles County juvenile justice system is the largest in the nation, with 2,000 inmates spread among 14 camps and three juvenile halls. Nationwide, 70 percent of juvenile inmates are convicted of a new offense after leaving a facility, according to the Children’s Defense Fund-California, an advocacy group.
Many of the problems are blamed on the camps themselves, where offenders are housed in large dormitories and where correctional policies such as boot-camp style discipline and surveillance create a “jail-like image.” Relationships between staff and inmates are often adversarial, and with large amounts of idle free time, there is little emphasis on rehabilitation for juvenile offenders.
Vincent, who has turned his life around after going through Camp Kilpatrick 8 years ago, says, “I am very excited that probation camps are going to change. The first day in camp, I felt that everyone had already given up on us. Being housed in a large dorm back then was like being in ‘Fight Club.’ I had to watch my back constantly.”
Programs that provided positive reinforcement are what changed his attitude and brought him out of depression. “I went from wanting to fight, to wanting to participate in the programs,” said Vincent.
Michelle Newell is a senior policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund who specializes in education and juvenile justice reform.
“If you have a facility that looks and acts like prison, kids are going to act like criminals, guards are going to act like guards,” says Newell.
Statistics for the new model are encouraging. According to the Children’s Defense Fund- California, 84 percent of the youth discharged from Missouri’s Division of Youth Services are law abiding and productive, or work after one year.
“Today we know more about of what young people need,” said Newell. “We know the new model works and all of us are optimistic we can start changing the way things are done.”
Changing the mentality from a jail-style setting to a small-group based rehabilitation model will also require buy-in from county staff who have only known a punitive model for many years, as assistant chief Meyer acknowledges.
“The transition from going from a guard mentality definitely will require retraining of our staff,” Meyer said. “However, we know that our desire to change, and the broad agency collaboration and community partnerships will elicit the changes needed in all of us.”
If it can be done, a major factor will be in the personal attention shown to juveniles.
Brandon, another former inmate of Camp Kilpatrick, credited an improv class taught by Malibu resident and actress Suzie Duff at the camp for saving his life.
“I had so much rage when I first met Suzie,” he said. “Improv turned out to be my way of expressing myself, my anger, and people actually stood there and listened to me.”
Duff, who is the Founder of Locked Up in Malibu, teaches the program at several juvenile detention camps.
“Performance, the art of improv, requires discipline,” Duff says. “Improv makes a person 100 percent responsible for every word they say and responsible for every action they do.”