As part of their rehabilitation at Los Prietos Boys Camp, boys fix computers using donated parts, erase the hard drives and then install operating systems and educational programs for the Santa Barbara County Education Office’s Computers for Families program.  (Melanie Sutton photo / Los Robles High School)

[Noozhawk’s note: This is the third in a series of stories examining Santa Barbara County’s custody operations. The county jail and substations, inmate services programs and Los Prietos Boys Camp are part of a world mostly out of the public eye — namely, what happens after a suspect has been arrested. Today, Noozhawk reporter Giana Magnoli takes an in-depth look at Los Prietos. Click here for a previous article that provided an overview of the county jail’s operations and programs. Click here for a previous article on the Sheriff’s Department’s treatment program.]

Dressed completely in either dark blue or brown, teenage boys walk to classes with their hands clasping thin black binders behind their backs.

They have identical uniforms and haircuts and sleep on identical bunks in the dormitories.

The boys who are sent to Los Prietos Boys Camp & Boys Academy off of Paradise Road have committed crimes from malicious mischief to robbery to battery, and are sentenced to time there by a judge. Juveniles tried as adults and charged with more serious crimes such as arson and homicide aren’t allowed at Los Prietos.

For sentences of four to six months, the boys are under the supervision of the Santa Barbara County Probation Department while they take part in classes as well as counseling and various programming.

The younger boys and first-timers are generally part of the Boys Academy. They dress in brown and are noticeably shorter. The blue-clad older boys and repeat offenders are part of the Boys Camp. Both groups attend school at the same time, but eat and are housed separately.

“They learn discipline here,” said Fred Razo, juvenile court and community schools administrator for the county Education Office. “They’re ramrod straight in class.”

The goal is to make them relevant again, he said. With an education and job skills, they can become a positive member of the community.

There’s a 10-to-1 ratio of students to teachers and various probation department staff at the camp, but it is a medium-to-light security facility as there are very few escape attempts, Razo said. “At most, they get a one minute head start,” he said.

On the way there on Highway 154, breathtaking views and forested campgrounds give a sense of just how far away from Santa Barbara the camp is.

A busy schedule awaits every boy who’s sent to Los Prietos. “Everyone wants to get a piece of these boys during the day,” Razo said.

Classes, vocational training, work, meals, exercise, community service, counseling and more occupy them from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., which is lights-out time. All the boys attend Los Robles High School, which is located within the camp’s 12-foot chain-link fence border and is operated by the county Education Office.

While it’s not a crime to fail school, most boys at the camp are at least a year behind on high school credits, said Razo, who also serves as Los Robles’ principal.

The Juvenile Court and Community Schools program includes community schools like El Puente in Santa Barbara, where many expelled students from other districts enroll, and court schools like Los Robles and Dos Puentas, which is located at Santa Maria Juvenile Hall. Some juveniles go back and forth between community and court schools, Razo said.

In the last three years, graduation rates at Los Prietos have skyrocketed.

In 2005, the program had virtually no computers, but now has one per two students and is working on getting more.

“We were as rudimentary as we could be but the need was huge,” Razo said.

Boys who are behind are involved in a credit recovery program as well as classes. The teachers are subject-specific, teach all levels and have access to every student’s transcript so a catch-up educational program can be tailored to each.

Los Robles graduates students several times a year, and their numbers have risen to 30 last August from two in 2006.

It used to be that four graduates was a huge deal, with county supervisors and other officials in attendance — and now, 20 at a time is the status quo, Razo said.

Additional students get certificates, meaning they passed all their academic requirements except the California High School Exit Exam.

Class, Computers and Construction

“This is the place to catch them before they end up in serious lockdown,” said Jim Clark, Los Prietos’ supervising probation officer.

Supervising probation officer Jim Clark shows off one of Los Prietos Boys Camp's dormitories, which resemble spartan barracks and contain few personal belongings.

Supervising probation officer Jim Clark shows off one of Los Prietos Boys Camp’s dormitories, which resemble spartan barracks and contain few personal belongings. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

In addition to general high school educational classes, the boys have the opportunity to explore a number of trades through classes and community service.

The most trustworthy boys can help cook and earn culinary arts certificates, while others can learn the basics of construction and computer technology in vocational classes.

Richard Anderson teaches construction, and oversees various structures being built — such as laundry sheds — on the camp’s property. No permanent structures are allowed, since it’s U.S. Forest Service land, but the classes serve as a way to build a bridge into the trades and give the boys a skill set, he said.

They have potential for adult success, including raising a family and owning a house. He’s seen 12 boys placed in construction trade jobs, and many local contracting firms help out with with job placement, donations and general job information.

Younger students in the community at large have reaped the benefits of one vocational class, the Computers for Families program. Vocational technology teacher Melanie Sutton helps the boys take apart, fix and program donated desktop computers that are then given to local grade-school students.

The boys themselves are reconnected to the community as they deliver computers every Tuesday and Thursday.

“They get a sense of pride and fulfillment,” Sutton said.

All fourth graders — and, hopefully, fifth graders soon — who qualify for a reduced or free lunch at school are eligible to get a free computer from Computers for Families. Los Prietos boys deliver the computers, train parents on their use as well as the dangers of the Internet, and provide free tech support. Bilingual students are extremely helpful, Sutton said.

“They feel a real bond between what they’re doing in here and the community,” she said.

Each donated computer includes a computer, monitor, mouse and keyboard and is programmed with an operating system and educational systems.

Computers for Families has given out more computers than usual lately, with their numbers hitting almost 500 since August, Sutton said.

The walls of the workroom are covered in pictures of the boys meeting with young children and their parents, as well as the proud looks on the Los Prietos boys’ faces when they help families get plugged in. They also answer reflection questions when they get back to camp.

“Some of these boys have benefited from the Computers for Families program themselves, and are very proud,” she said.

Donated computers are always needed — desktops only — and all the parts are donated as well.

Finishing the vocational program provides the boys with a skill set and a certificate with their exit exam on the back, which they can take to job interviews. Each student takes a pretest and then the same test at the end of the session to see what they’ve learned, Sutton said.

Behavior and Expectations

Other community service that brings boys out of the camp includes setting up and taking down booths at Old Spanish Days Fiesta, riding the old Los Prietos fire engine in parades and volunteering with various nonprofit organizations.

Staff are working on putting a band together (they still need a drum and trumpet), and some boys earn the privilege to be involved in the Drama Kings, which is a standup group that speaks to local schools about “My Story” — why each of them is at camp and what they would have done differently if faced with the same circumstances that got them there.

Melanie Sutton, who teaches computer classes and oversees the Computers for Families program, helps new students take apart, fix and program donated desktop computers.

Melanie Sutton, who teaches computer classes and oversees the Computers for Families program, helps new students take apart, fix and program donated desktop computers. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Students can also leave the camp as a reward, and there have been incentive trips from a conservation trip to Santa Cruz Island to sports games.

A while ago, there was the chance for a few boys to go to a Dodgers game.

“You should see behavior step it up,” Clark said.

All the boys have the same belongings, food, schedule and haircut, and have no status unless they earn it. The camp tries to eliminate negative peer influence this way, as well as limiting visitors to parents and siblings younger than 10.

There’s no tolerance for gang or drug activity, although at least half of them have a gang history, Clark said. There isn’t much of an issue with fights.

“There’s one neighborhood up here and they’re all in it,” he said. “They have to learn how to cooperate if they want to graduate and go home.”

By making the camp all about the present, staff try to help boys with their self esteem, building up their trust with their families, and giving them an education and skill sets.

Their connections with the outside world are limited to visitors, guest speakers and community service or program trips.

The boys have to earn their way out of the program through case work reviews, their participation in school, work and counseling, and behavior, Clark said.

They can earn time off or get additional time added to their sentence. Some are sent back to Juvenile Hall for a few weeks, then get another chance. Others can be sent to the California Youth Authority, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Juvenile Justice Division of Juvenile Justice, but not often.

“We try not to give up on a young boy,” Clark said.

Those who graduate are eligible for the scholarship program — $500 per semester for books and tuition. Many boys have gone on to attend college, and some older boys at the camp who have finished high school can start online community college classes while at Los Prietos.

According to the Probation Department’s data from the last three years, 73 percent of students who graduated did not commit new crimes.

County-wide, the Juvenile Court and Community Schools program shows growth in graduation rates for the last 10 years. They’ve been steadily climbing since 2005-06, when 49 graduated, to 125 students in 2008-09. Most students at those schools are behind in credits, and schools have been showing growth in credits being earned as well.

In 2008, budget issues forced the closure of the Santa Barbara Juvenile Hall, which is now a booking station. The entire county now feeds into the Santa Maria Juvenile Hall.

The Santa Maria Juvenile Hall holds about 140 people, both boys and girls, and is a maximum-security facility for long-term, more serious offenses.

There are no similar boot camp-like programs for girls, yet there’s a real need in the county, Razo said. Early intervention is limited to Juvenile Hall and community and court schools. While the county’s current budget situation makes plans questionable, there’s discussion of an additional facility being built on vacant county land near the Santa Maria Juvenile Hall.

Los Prietos was built in 1933 as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and became a camp for wayward boys in 1944.

The current camp received funding from the 1994 federal crime bill, or “boot camp bill,” and used to serve and get funding from the entire tri-counties area.

Its 17 acres include dormitories, a school, cafeteria, gymnasium, some faculty and staff housing, a soccer field, offices and a rock Zen garden.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at