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This duo aim to help teens make a turnaround at Sacramento Youth Detention Facility

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Sacramento's Youth Detention Facility has gained fame for its progressive programs and methods. Two of the facility's chiefs speak about the facility's transformation over the past two decades on Friday, June 14, 2019.
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Sacramento's Youth Detention Facility has gained fame for its progressive programs and methods. Two of the facility's chiefs speak about the facility's transformation over the past two decades on Friday, June 14, 2019.

It looks like a high school. Kids shuffle through the hallways and into classrooms with rows of computers and walls decorated with posters that say “Read Everyday” and “Math of the Aztecs.”

A man waits in front of a whiteboard — “Mr. Weaver,” it reads — greeting the kids as they settle in. About 15 boys attend. Class is about to start.

But these students are different. Wearing identical outfits of gray sweat shirts and dark sweat pants, they range in age from 13 to 17. A probation officer stands in the back of the room.

“This is the best time to never ever come back to this place again,” Tyrone Weaver tells his class at the Sacramento Youth Detention Facility – formerly known as a juvenile hall, the first point of interaction for most youths who enter Sacramento County’s juvenile justice system.

Weaver, 45, a counselor at Samuel Jackman Middle School, leads the orientation class and Capacity Changers program at the detention facility.

A five- to six-week curriculum he developed himself, Capacity Changers focuses on different ways of resolving conflict, different avenues for becoming successful and creating different choices in life.

“They’ve been seeing the same thing all their lives, the majority of them, and believe that’s the only thing they can drive for, reach for, when that may not be the case,” Weaver said. “We try to shake them from their status quo so they can see something different.”

He partners with Nate Snyder to run the program for the boys’ and girls’ units. They’re a beloved duo wherever they go in the Youth Detention Facility, greeted by fist bumps and hugs.

“Because of his background and where he came from, his current present testimony and his life, it speaks to the children without having to say very much at all,” Weaver said. “So then when he does speak he has the total floor, they’re at the edge of their seats.”

From 2004 to 2008, Snyder was in and out of the jail system, serving time at the Sacramento County Main Jail and Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center. Then, a bullet changed his life in 2010.

“That’s when everything changed for me, when I got shot,” he said. He got involved with the Sacramento Violence Intervention Program and later got his first job with SVIP.

When Snyder, 33, witnessed the reaction to Weaver from the residents of YDF, he was “in awe of what he was doing” and couldn’t help falling in love with the program. Kids from different units and different neighborhoods were willing to come together just to listen to Weaver speak.

The duo are making a difference for kids at the Kiefer Boulevard facility – which itself has emerged from a troubled past.

A decade-long transformation

The Sacramento Youth Detention Center has undergone a transformation in the past decade.

A lawsuit in 2012 alleged 24 former residents were abused in incidents from 1998 to 2010, according to The Sacramento Bee. Sacramento County settled the lawsuits in 2015 by paying $475,000, The Bee reported. A December 2009 court order also required Youth Detention Facility staffers to substantially improve their conduct.

Since then, the facility has partnered with the nonprofit Performance-based Standards to shift toward a positive, rehabilitative approach and adopt a “much more trauma-informed, youth- and family-centered focus in the way we go about juvenile justice,” Marlon Yarber, assistant chief for juvenile operations, told The Bee.

The Youth Detention Facility received the 2018 Barbara Allen-Hagen Award, which recognizes youth detention centers throughout the country that put a focus on positive outcomes rather than punishment.

Weaver started volunteering at the Youth Detention Facility in 2010 and was first offered a contract in 2011. He had been a Sacramento County probation officer before working for the Elk Grove Unified School District.

At the Youth Detention Center, he often recognizes kids who have previously passed through his school office.

After each Capacity Changers class he leads, residents often ask to talk to Weaver one-on-one. He comforts the tearful who are going through court cases and helps others figure out a strategy.

“I’m able to be a voice and a listening ear, and it’s a blessing,” Weaver said.

Though Weaver can’t say whether the Capacity Changers program has reduced recidivism, he said he’s seen a decrease in use of force and staff injury.

The facility regularly housed 300 residents prior to 2009, but the number has been dropping. As of July, 128 kids lived there, a nearly constant number for the past three years.

Juvenile crime has been steadily decreasing in Sacramento County and throughout California as well. According to the California Sentencing Institute, 1,403 kids were arrested in the county 2009. In 2016, only 439 were arrested.

Weaver is beginning the process of taking Capacity Changers to other youth detention facilities in Northern California.

In the classroom

Weaver has seen these kids too many times. He describes a “revolving door,” where children as young as 11 start arriving at the Sacramento Youth Detention Facility, coming and going until they turn 18.

“I’ve seen her so many times in the last year and a half,” he said of a girl in the hallway he greeted by name.

Weaver comes to the facility twice a week to talk to kids in the orientation unit and to run Capacity Changers.

Weaver greeted the boys in the orientation unit with fist bumps and handshakes. This group had only three returnees, so he could do his usual speech.

“I want to say something and if you receive it, it might change your life, bro,” Weaver said.

Slowly but surely, he grabbed the attention of every boy in the room. A story about fouling in an NBA game turns into a conversation about how to own up to your actions and your mistakes. Another story Weaver acts out about a subway ride with a cast of funny characters leads to the question: What do you do when you know you were the problem?

Throughout the night, Weaver planted seeds for his Capacity Changers program in hopes that the longer term residents will choose to participate.

He asked them to write down the answers to the following questions: Who are you? What are you supposed to be in life?

They wrote: “I’m a bright young man.” “I’m a good person.” “Right now I am a criminal.” “Haven’t figured out, I don’t know who I am.”

Then, Weaver handed everyone an envelope. The boys opened them. They contained papers with their mugshots printed on the corner. They saw themselves with sad, solemn eyes. They saw themselves as criminals.

This was Weaver’s final reminder of the night.

“This is a hiccup in your life,” he said. “Don’t let it be you.”

‘The same cycle’

One boy stayed behind to talk to Weaver. In hushed tones, he spoke about the guilt that he felt for getting his S1 dropped — a type of maximum security designation for serious crimes — while his friend didn’t.

“I don’t know how many more chances you’re gonna get, though,” Weaver replied.

This particular resident has been in the Youth Detention Facility so many times that he knew all the punchlines to Weaver’s stories. He spoke with Weaver with an air of trust, recalling the first time he experienced Weaver’s orientation unit talk.

“It felt like a punch to my gut,” he said. “I kind of felt like I was doing the same thing, the same cycle … I felt like every time that I leave, I’m still the same person.”

He completed Capacity Changers when he was 13. He’s now almost 17.

The last session of the program is called “The Push.” Weaver asks the residents where they see themselves in 10 years.

“What’s your children’s names? What color’s your house?” Weaver asks. “… Already now they’ve got a dream written down and it’s something that they’re willing to fight for.”

This boy had a dream at 13, but it’s been almost four years. He seemed ashamed to talk about it, because nothing had changed, which means he needed a new 10-year plan.

As part of “The Push,” Weaver also asked residents to identify three roadblocks that would prevent them from reaching their goals.

This boy identified obstacles that Weaver had heard many times before. His father left when he was 8, his mother is on drugs and he lives with his sister, who can’t afford the shoes he wants so he can look the same as the other kids, he said.

His older brother is in prison, and he hasn’t seen him in three years. His uncle, now in prison, told him when he was younger that he would end up either dead or in prison.

“I don’t see too much of anything else either,” he said.

But after some coaxing from Weaver, he said, “The main thing that’s on my mind right now is having a kid … I wanna take care of my kids.”

Weaver asked him to spend the next week thinking about a new plan; a new direction. He seemed less weary than before and agreed to do Weaver’s assignment.

“If I had thought about Mr. Weaver the last time (I got out), I probably wouldn’t be here,” he said.

‘Don’t leave here without a plan’

Nate Snyder’s first impression of Weaver was “the level of respect that the youth had for him.”

After hearing Weaver speak in front of the Youth Detention Facility residents, Snyder, 33, started joining Weaver within the last year for his Capacity Changers program.

If Weaver is Michael Jordan, Snyder is Scottie Pippen — “He’ll set me up perfect for conversation with his lesson,” Snyder said.

Weaver calls their dynamic “savory and sweet.”

The two recently conducted a lesson with a group of boys who had already gone through the entire Capacity Changers program. These residents were older; many were close to 18 and about to get out. The stakes were higher, and they knew it.

“Nobody wants to be in here,” Snyder said. “Sometimes we get pushed to do certain things … if you remove yourself from certain situations, certain places, sometimes we might have to move, not far, but sometimes we might have to venture out of our comfort zone and get out of the area where we know causes problems.”

“If you don’t have a plan, they will hand you one,” Weaver warned. “Don’t leave here without a plan man, you gonna make it bro.”

And they do have plans. One resident wants to take care of this mother and his little brothers — “Make sure I put my mom in a big house,” he said. Another wants to DJ on the side while working as a construction worker.

Another has already been accepted in junior college and plans to work part-time while going to school. He knows what his obstacles are — quitting smoking and “controlling my anger” — but this time around is different.

“It’s crunch time for my life,” he said.

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Jaimie Ding, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee with an interest in politics and international relations. She grew up in Vancouver, Washington.
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