It all began with a fistfight between two sisters, teenagers born only a year apart, in their own Los Angeles home. Fearing a very bloody conclusion, their mother felt she had no choice but to call police.

Since that call, Adela Ramirez, now 20, spent most of her late-teen life a prisoner of four different detention facilities around Southern California. First came a holding tank in Los Angeles Juvenile Hall, then the razor-wired walls of the Dorthy Kirby Treatment Center in East L.A., where Ramirez underwent intensive anger management and mental health treatments. Next came Camp Onizuka in Lancaster, one of only two all-girl probation camps in the area, before she was transferred to an adult jail.

The husky but now soft-spoken Ramirez, 16 when she entered juvenile hall, was not surprised to find herself there. She had always been an angry child.

When Ramirez was 2, her father died from a stroke. At 4, her mother became disabled. Ramirez and her sister were sent to a foster home for half of a year, a place she credits with fueling the anger that burned inside of her. The people running the facility, she said, would not allow her and her sister to play together and prevented the two from sharing toys or expressing emotion.

“My mom would come [to the foster home], and I would cry because I wanted to go home,” Ramirez said. “They said if I cried, I wouldn’t be able to see her.”

When the time finally came for her to go home, Ramirez wasn’t the same. She was kicked out of school for fighting, became associated with violent male gang members and assaulted people who confronted her — all in a quest, she says now, for the personal attention the foster home and her mother failed to provide.

The girls of the Los Angeles County Probation Department — be it in the camps, treatment centers or delinquency halls — have at some point found themselves in situations like Ramirez’s.

“They typically come from low-income, high-crime neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. Many come from single-parent homes. A significant number come from the foster-care system,” said Susan Cruz , a case manager with Girls and Gangs, a non-profit organization that works with girls in L.A.’s juvenile justice system.

“The vast majority have seen or experienced violence in their communities. Many do poorly in school, use or abuse substances, and a significant number have dual-diagnosis disorders. Overwhelmingly, they are from non-white populations, with Latinas and African Americans the largest groups, consistent with the data that shows overrepresentation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system,” said Cruz.

Of the 3,132 young people detained in the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Division of Juvenile Justice on Nov. 20, 161 are girls, said William Brandt, a patrol agent with the department.

While the machine of justice turns pretty much the same for all children accused of a crime, girls have a unique experience of the system once they are inside.

It’s a world few people come to know and even fewer would expect — a society within society based on unique emotional bonds, girl-gang rivalries and an unbreakable culture of same-sex physical love that comes to life as soon as the lights go out.

Stepping inside the system

When a child is arrested for a misdemeanor, she is brought to one of three juvenile halls and waits, pending further court action or transfer to another facility. There, the child gets a handbook describing where she is, the rules she must follow and a list of affirmations that are expected to give minors a better feeling of self-worth.

Deciding her fate is either an officer or detective, who decides whether the case is worth the attention of the district attorney, said Roger Gayheart, an LAPD detective in the juvenile division. Next, probation officers act as liaison between the officers and the district attorney, looking into things such as the child’s arrest history and criminal record. If it is clean, nothing usually happens to the youngster, he said.

If officials decide to move on a case, Gayheart said it could take up to three months before the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office even sees it. Meanwhile, the kids who do not get sent home by the detention officers sit in juvenile hall and wait. Unlike their adult counterparts, they cannot get bail. The process takes this long because of a natural slowness of the system and thousands of cases flooding the courts. If the district attorney files a case, it could take up to another 60 days after the three-month wait before the juvenile enters the courtroom for the first time.

Commit a crime in September, see a judge in January.

The process is sped up if the crime committed is a felony. Usually the low-risk offenders, ranging from having a weapon to committing bodily harm, are sent to probation camps or mental health centers.

Violent offenders are sent to the juvenile jails, formerly called the California Youth Authority and now part of the Department of Corrections Rehabilitation Juvenile Justice Division, said Ken Kondo, public relations officer for Los Angeles Probation Department-run Camp Joseph Scott.

Some may ask, when the sentence ax comes down, are children ever just children — should they really be in lock-up, isolated from their families?

“It would all depend on the kid and the crime,” Gayheart said. “I don’t think they should be in jail, but we have to protect society.”

However, many first-timers don’t see jail.

“The ones who finally end up in [a juvenile justice facility] are the ones who have been told what to do, what is right, what is wrong,” he said. “There is a ton more options [before sending a kid to prison].”

In Los Angeles County during 2004 and the first half of this year, 265 juveniles, both boys and girls, received a sentence of a year or more behind bars, said L.A. County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons.

The probation camp experience

There is something incredibly calming about leaving the urban core of Los Angeles and pulling into Camp Scott, located in Saugus, an area near Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia. As the birds sing and the numerous trees sway in the early morning sun, a group of girls counting to 10 can be heard in the distance. Those behind the tall chain-link fence of the probation camp are dressed today in white t-shirts and purple shorts. It is Veterans Day, and the on-site school is closed in remembrance of the holiday.

Instead of the required 300 minutes of classroom time, the 105 girls are participating in recreational sports. A handful of them are stretching in preparation for a soccer game.

Organized sports are a good way for minors to make connections with one another, said David Harrison, Camp Scott supervisor. In team-oriented activities, it is important that people look for their teammates to make the winning point and much less important to look at their skin color or to recognize their neighborhood affiliation, said Harrison, 57 and grandfather of 10.

This is just the beginning of the many life lessons that the staff tries to instill in these youngsters, who are usually sentenced to three-, six-, nine- or 12-month stays at the camps.

Harrison said that in the past, girls were getting six months at the minimum, but because more juveniles are entering the system, there is less money to work with. In fact, he said, L.A. County has the same number of camps and deputy probation officers as it did during the 1990s. While numbers recently have been on the rise, 1996 peaked with a total of 10,122 young people in the system.

With limited time, those working to rehabilitate the kids have to work faster and harder if they want to make a change, Harrison said. Often they only reach some of the goals before they have to send the juveniles back into society, under the supervision of field probation officers. Harrison likes the longer camp sentences better.

“They are kids, and they can change their lives. The more time you have, the more chance you have to build relationships,” he said.

“It is hard to tell how much a person has changed inside,” continued Harrison. “You cannot say, ‘You’re a loser’ [a term for a juvenile who is not responding to orders] because you don’t know when all of the discipline is going to click.”

This is a value Harrison expresses to his staff, he said, recounting one incident when he reminded a camp officer being particularly rough with a recalcitrant inmate that an officer’s job isn’t just to command respect — that should already be assumed, he said — but to offer support as well.

“Young people come to work here and they are so excited; they get attached to the kids,” Harrison said. Choking up, he shared a personal account of a former inmate calling him from the hospital saying he had been shot and was now paralyzed.

The making of a sisterhood

Renee McElroy, a deputy probation officer at Camp Scott, found the job a way to keep herself stimulated while at the same time instilling in the young women a feeling of self-worth.

After getting Trader Joe’s to donate tea to her camp two years ago, McElroy now leads a tea social and book club each Thursday, attended by a handful of girls. They set up the table with real tea sets and goblets and prepare finger sandwiches and other appetizers.

Excited to sip their drinks and talk about the stories they’ve read, McElroy said the girls act as though they are true socialites — like ladies. She believes the implementation of feminine culture is important to girls who may never have been compelled to feel this way in the past.

“It is a sisterhood. It is not tension about who came from what neighborhood,” said McElroy.

Sitting on tables and chairs in a small room off of the main sleeping area in the dorm, three of the girls talked about their life experiences. Some cried. It’s a rare moment when the girls are not under the grill of officers.

Christina, a 17-year-old whose last name the state requires to be withheld to protect her identity, has been at the facility for three months and looks forward to a late-December release date. She blames her “dysfunctional mother for raising a dysfunctional child.” Christina said her mother was severely abused as a child, even scalded with hot water on her feet, and later became an abused wife before raising six children on her own. The tragedy of her mother’s life has deeply impacted Christina’s.

“I cannot even hug my mom, because she does not know how to love,” she said.

Jocelyn (again, full name withheld) was raised in a household where gangs were second nature, as most of the members of her family were involved in one at some point in their lives. Her brother was killed because of gang violence. For her, not being in a gang is abnormal, she said, describing society as having set up a system for her to fail.

Before coming to the camp, gang pressure prompted her to steal a family heirloom to trade for guns. Then, after stealing her father’s work truck, she became the target of a drive-by shooting in which that truck became filled with holes. Her father was the only one working in the family — the only one with an income — and was then forced to take the bus to and from work. They no longer speak.

“Programs in the juvenile justice system have been designed and tailored for what historically has been the largest population: teenage boys,” said Girls and Gangs’ Cruz. “However, as the numbers of girls entering the system increases, there is a need to redesign those programs and the approach taken with girls who have different needs and challenges.”

Getting too close

While friendships are encouraged in this environment, getting too close to another girl is against the rules, particularly in the dorms. But it happens all the time.

In a large building directly beyond the cafeteria are the bunks. All 105 girls are housed here, where a total of 125 small, twin-sized metal beds are lined up in perfect rows of two.

Each girl gets a gray blanket, many of which are nubby and worn, as well as sheets and a pillow. It all gets laid out on green, rubbery mattresses. Next to the beds sit off-white lockers — badly in need of a fresh coat of paint — for private possessions.

It is here on the metal cots that sexual acts among the juveniles frequently take place.

As soon as the lights are switched off, said Anderson, a girl will slip out of bed and under her lover’s bunk. Once the coast is clear, she will then climb into bed with the other young woman.

Sex is an ever-present issue in the camp. Harrison said a recent report of two young women having sex in the bathroom area forced the officers to reprimand the pair.

Some wonder why there is such a culture of same-sex activity in the system.

“These women don’t know anything about being gay,” said Deputy Probation Officer Larry Elston. When he asks girls why they choose to have sex with each other, most answer, “because she had a pretty face,” he said.

When the camp shows movies on Friday nights, the girls respond more to female sexual images than images of males, said Torres.

“If a good-looking man comes out [in the movie], they don’t clap; when a good looking woman comes out they do,” he said.

Jocelyn — herself a beautiful young woman with bright hazel eyes and an innocent smile — said most of the young women are bisexuals, and about 40 percent are lesbian. Many of the girls become attracted to one another simply because it’s what everyone else is doing.

A lesbian, the 18-year-old Jocelyn has been in Camp Scott since February and is expected to get out in January.

Despite any relationships she has developed in the camp, Jocelyn still holds her gang in the highest regard, putting it first before everything else, which has caused her trouble in the camp.

Both young men and women connect with groups for many reasons, including safety, a sense of belonging, economic gain, power and control. In the past, girls joined gangs because of a boyfriend who was involved, said Cruz.

“More and more, though, we see direct participation of females, without the relationship component, becoming gang members,” she said.

At Camp Scott, girls are given performance points for each activity that they do. If girls do poorly, they must wear a green shirt. If they do well, they get to wear a brown shirt, which signifies leadership. If their performance is outstanding, they get to wear a black shirt, which signifies the highest rank.

Jocelyn was finally wearing a black shirt when she got word of new gang struggles in her home neighborhood. She retaliated against rivals at the camp and lost her privileges. She was also found in possession of drugs.

Discipline from disorder

Aside from gangs, Anderson said drugs are a real problem at Camp Scott, with girls smuggling in marijuana and crystal meth, which in one case was brought into the camp by a girl’s mother, who hid it in a Snickers bar.

While camp officers focus on drug smuggling and other problems, some of the inmates, on the other hand, actually find problems in recent moves to demilitarize the camp.

In 2004, the county began eliminating its boot camp-style program.

“Hardcore boot camps do not work,” Kondo said. Instead, he feels it is more important to focus on the girls’ strengths.

Jessica, a young mother at Camp Scott who was wearing a brown shirt, described administration of control at the camp as “chaotic.”

Christine and Jocelyn agree. They said the probation officers are not as strict, and because of that the girls find themselves in more trouble.

“They encourage us to be good, but sometimes we see it as a joke because [we are not used to such kindness],” Jocelyn said.

Today, Christine is found with two packets of CDs, which Anderson said are considered contraband, as they can be used not only to pluck eyebrows but also as weapons if broken into small pieces.

Harrison decided to approach the young woman, who has tattoos covering her hands and back. Christine said the CDs were for listening to during work duty, but she knows the rules.

“I guess I wasn’t thinking,” said Christine.

“You’ve got to get it together; you are out of control,” said Harrison. “You may not know that you are out of control, but if the judge says you are too close to the line, do you challenge the judge and get too close to the line?”

“No,” she answered.

“Who’s making these choices?” he asked.

“I am,” she said.

While the girls no longer wear fatigues at the camp, many of the probation officers do. Officers still yell out militaristic commands, such as parade-rest and double time. In addition, the girls’ dorm is separated into platoons.

Torres said girls feel protected with the military commands.

“They feel safe because it is controlled,” he said, “When it is out of control, they start crying and get scared.”

In fact many of the girls appear thankful that they landed on the serene wooded campus, as opposed to the youth prisons where they said they fear young women get stabbed and have more restrictions. At Camp Scott, girls have the option to be on sports teams and are offered other opportunities, such as riding horses.

This may be why there has been only one attempted escape in the past year. Near the beginning of this year, five girls were able to leave the camp via an unlocked laundry room door. Harrison said the escape was planned, that they left during shower time, which decreased their visibility because groups of girls are going in and out of the wash area. Within 45 minutes, the escapees were caught and back on campus.

Jocelyn said all of the girls in the probation camp felt the sting of those few girls breaking the rules, as they were all awakened at three in the morning to walk around the dirt track in the middle of the campus. Not only that, a new string of barbed wire appeared on top of the fences surrounding the area.

Change: a holistic approach

While some funding for new youth programs has been allocated, the Division of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Web site states the funds are still not enough.

“What is often referred to as a ‘holistic approach’ is, in my opinion, the best,” said Cruz. “Service provision must include a reframing of attitudes and behaviors that lead to self-destructive behaviors that eventually lead to incarceration.”

On a macro-level, Cruz would like to see the development of social justice in our society; everyone should be held accountable for the most vulnerable. This, of course, has yet to happen.

“Sadly most of the so-called solutions [including longer sentences] lead to more problems,” said Cruz. “The tough-on-crime approach is turning the United States into a penal colony, with nearly 10 percent of the incarcerated population being children and adolescents.”

When it comes to punishing kids who commit violent crimes, the U.S. and California in particular are some of the harshest places in the world. A recent report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found more than 2,200 American prisoners were serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. At mid-year 2004, American prisons and jails held nearly 10,000 youths, according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice report.

As for alternative solutions, Cruz said mentoring has proven somewhat effective.

Greg Turk, a pastor at the All Peoples Christian Center in South Los Angeles, uses a self-development curriculum during the mentoring process that uses affirmations to guide at-risk kids.

“Before they start something, they think they will be successful at it,” Turk said.

“Obviously, in this area [kids on probation], it could work.”

Turk’s goal is to get people moving toward a more positive inner-self. “[It is important that we] understand how our minds work, how we talk to ourselves. If someone says, ‘Greg you’re clumsy,’ [after a while] I begin to think that,” he said, and then act it out. Literally, an idea can take over a person’s mind and determine behavior, he said.

To Turk, positive attention is the key to reaching young people.

Breaking the cycle

Ramirez spoke of her own experience as a juvenile delinquent as she sat in the foyer of her apartment building near MacArthur Park. While locked up for all of those years, said Ramirez as she chuckled and shook her head, she did not miss anything: not restaurants, not shopping malls, not television shows. She also did not express herself much to the people working or serving time in the facilities.

“I didn’t really open up that much. I would just say certain things. I wouldn’t say everything,” she recalled.

Until Ramirez met her mentor — Girls and Gangs’ Cruz — who spoke with her on a one-on-one basis, she recalls never having received genuine attention from anyone.

Had someone taken the time, would Ramirez have been locked in a small cell at Kirby? Would she have had to endure marching around a track in only her nightgown and military-style boots because a few girls were not behaving the night before? Later, once she was out of the camp, would she have cut the band off of the house-arrest bracelet around her leg only to end up five months later in an adult jail facility?

Ramirez can’t answer these questions. She is focused, instead, on providing a better life for her 1-year-old son, Carlos. Throughout the interview, he crawled on her lap and back, paced around the hallway and smiled as residents came into the building.

If, at 16, young Carlos becomes angry the way she was, “I would take him to counseling, talk to him [not only as a son, but] as a friend, ’cause for me, I didn’t have that since I was little. I didn’t have my mom coming up to me, talking to me.”