Boys and girls confined in San Francisco’s juvenile hall might rather be elsewhere, but most aren’t in a hurry to go outside.
That is according to an anonymous survey of detainees at the city’s Juvenile Justice Center, where almost two-thirds of the young offenders said they don’t like outdoor recreation.
Of the survey’s 53 respondents, only 10 said they participated in outdoor exercise every day. When they did participate, nearly a third reported spending less than an hour outside.
The survey comes after months of debate between the San Francisco Youth Commission – which conducted the poll – and the Department of Juvenile Probation over whether detainees get enough fresh air, sunlight and exercise to satisfy state regulations. By law, detainees are entitled to one hour of outdoor “large-muscle” exercise each day.
“It’s pretty clear that young people are not getting their hour a day outdoors,” said commission director Mario Yedidia after reviewing the survey results. “The culture of the institution seems like it’s not really encouraging of outdoor exercise.
Despite the survey’s findings, Chief of Juvenile Probation William Siffermann has insisted for months that the hall is in compliance with all state regulations. “Some kids don’t want to go outside,” he said at one point, “and I can’t force them out there.”
All but one of the detainees surveyed said they liked visiting the indoor gym, but almost half said they used it fewer than four days a week. Basketball was the most popular activity, and several kids used their questionnaires to request that hoops be installed on the small concrete courtyards adjacent to their units.
“We need a basketball hoop, please,” wrote one detainee.
Another complained: “We only play basketball. We need more sports.”
The Youth Commission, a panel of 17 San Franciscans ages 12 to 23 appointed by the mayor, makes policy recommendations to city leaders and began pushing for more outdoor recreation at the hall last year.
In February, the commission drafted a resolution calling for detainees to have regular access to a large outdoor space at the hall that had sat unused since it was built in 2006 as part of a $47 million renovation. Siffermann said then that security concerns and staff shortages prevented safe usage of most areas of the large yard.
Subsequent inquiries by the commission raised questions about the hall’s compliance with state regulations. Although a 2010 state inspection found no compliance issues at the facility, the commission and Board of Supervisors asked Siffermann to provide documentation showing how often individual detainees go outside.
Until now, staff at the hall has not recorded that information, but Siffermann told The Bay Citizen this week that he will begin reporting those numbers to the Youth Commission on a quarterly basis.
Youth commissioners said that the lack of interest in outdoor recreation indicated in the new survey results took them by surprise.
“The results were not what we were expecting, but they speak to the gravity of the situation,” said Paul Monge-Rodriguez, a 23-year-old youth commissioner. “Kids at this age should want nothing more than to go outside and engage with their peers.”
The results demonstrated the hall’s need for more recreational programs, he added.
“There’s a limited number of recreational activities to fulfill the state’s large-muscle exercise requirements,” he said. “The survey shows there’s a lot of basketball, but it’s like being offered the same one meal every day, and people get sick of the lack of variety and lose interest.”
Angel Carrion, who was locked up for two years at the hall before joining the Youth Commission, said the lack of outdoor activity shows that the institutional setting has taken a mental toll on youth in the hall.
“They’re so consistently confined indoors that they eventually get used to it and lose their motivation to go outside,” he said. “You get no sunlight in there, and I came out looking really pale. If you’re constantly in the shadows, you’re going to be depressed.”
Of the survey’s 53 respondents, 34 said exercise helped reduce stress, and 17 reported sleeping better on days they were physically active. Thirteen noted improved interactions with peers and nine said exercise reduced the time they spent dwelling on personal trauma.
Despite limited resources, Siffermann said, he has implemented a variety of physical activities for youth including a gardening program and weekly yoga classes. The kids were evenly divided on yoga: half liked it, half did not and one didn’t say.
Detainees have begun using parts of the large yard, Siffermann added, and the hall’s school program now offers outdoor activities during school hours.
“I know this institution and this chief are really committed to rehabilitation,” said Yedidia, the commission director. “But we want to see full use of the yard, and we want the chief to start documenting individual outdoor time.”
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This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit, investigative news sources in the Bay Area and a part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.