known as Chad. "They play a lot of games. They play with people's minds."
Juvenile justice experts have found that once young people leave California's system, one of the most violent in the nation, they often show signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Like Scales, they spend a majority of their developmental years behind bars getting acculturated to prison life. While they are supposed to be in school and learning skills to help them become productive citizens, their minds are being shaped by their lives in jail cells.
Scales entered the system at 16-years-old, at freshman grade level, and with a lot of anger. While incarcerated, he sometimes spent months locked down 23 hours a day -- a practice dubbed "23:1" that has been condemned, but a recent state investigation shows that it's still continuing.
Scales could be out on the streets unemployed or committing more crimes, yet he's far from the volatile young man he was in his teens. He currently works two jobs, is the father of a 7-month-old baby girl, is writing a book, and is taking a full load of college courses. One of his part-time jobs is working at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which also advocates for juvenile justice reform. He has plans to become a psychiatrist and open a mentoring center in Richmond.
It's been two years since Scales left the system. He's in the midst of self-transformation. There is a sense of eagerness and urgency in his life, as if he's trying to make up for lost years -- and is determined not to be yet another statistic.
David Muhammad sees a different picture than what is often portrayed about youth criminals.
"These are young people with unlimited potential and innate greatness," he says, a message that he and other mentors try to instill in the young men's minds.
They're battling against negative messages. While educational programs behind bars are lacking -- Chad actually lost its high school accreditation in 2005 -- youth are still learning behind bars from each other and the adults they encounter. Their young minds are soaking in daily lessons about boundaries, relationships, family and how to be an adult.
For example, they quickly learn that instead of throwing urine at staff ("gassing"), which will surely send them to "the pen"-- an adult prison--that they can throw water instead, which may result only in being locked up 23 hours a day, Scales explains.
Almost all young people entering the system take anger management classes, but they also learn from adult behavior about what is acceptable and what is not.
Six correctional guards at Chad were caught on surveillance tape beating two "wards," or youth in 2004. Those guards were fired and then reinstated by the state personnel board in 2005.
"How are they going to tell us about our anger and rage, when they clearly showed their anger and rage?" asks Scales. "You just can't justify hitting wards 28 times like that."
Those "mind games" that the system plays with youth, inadvertently or not, only harden their criminal mentality. The youngest ward to be held in a California youth prison is 11-years-old; many other youths stay up to 25-years-old, when they max out and leave prison.
"You're talking about a child in Chad, which is a maximum security prison, locked up 23 hours a day," says Muhammad. "It can be very traumatizing and have a lifelong effect on their psyche."