His life’s work was to stop the incarceration of youth in San Francisco. It’s finally happening.
San Francisco made national news this summer by becoming the first major city in the nation to begin the process of closing its juvenile detention center. But this was a long time coming. Organizers have been pushing for this for years. Ray Balberan, a lifelong San Franciscan in his mid-70s, has been advocating to close juvenile hall for decades.
It was 1983 and Balberan was furious. Not enough was being done to protect children incarcerated at San Francisco’s juvenile hall.
Balberan — who is known as “Uncle Ray” in the neighborhood — had already spent two years carefully documenting dozens of charges of physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the Youth Guidance Center, which is what Juvenile Hall used to be called. Yet only one counselor had been fired. Balberan wasn’t fooling around. He picked up the phone and called the president. The president of the United States.
“I’ll never forget the night Ray got so frustrated he called the White House,” recalled his friend and mentee, Fred Bojorquez, now a social worker, eighteen at the time. Both men remember that night so well because, shockingly, that phone call was a real catalyst for change.
“An actual human picked up,” said Balberan, misty-eyed. He is in his seventies now. We chatted in his living room, in a quiet house in lower Pacific Heights that he bought in the ’80s when you could still do something like that — afford a home in San Francisco on a nonprofit salary.
“I told her, ‘I want to speak to the president. I’d like to speak to the president of the United States,’” recounted Ray, who smiles when he thinks of that night. “And she says, ‘Well, the president is busy, but how could I help you?’ I said, ‘I’m afraid children are going to die in here.’ And she listened. She just listened and listened.”
This call appears to have made an impression.
Two weeks later, the Department of Justice called up Real Alternatives Program (R.A.P.), where Ray was working as a case manager at the time, to say that they’d decided to move forward with an investigation into the conditions at Youth Guidance Center. A few months later, in September of 1985, Diane Feinstein, then-mayor of San Francisco, received a sternly worded letter documenting the DOJ’s findings.
“Our investigation consisted primarily of extensive tours of the facility between June and August 1985,” wrote William Bradford Reynolds, Assistant Attorney General. “Based on our investigation, we have concluded that the Youth Guidance Center is subjecting juveniles to flagrant or egregious conditions that deprive them of their constitutional rights. In coming to that conclusion, we were cognizant that most juveniles held at YGC have not been convicted of any crime.”
The letter documented the institution’s abuses, including arbitrary and frequent use of solitary confinement to punish the children for minor infractions, denying access to bathrooms, forcing children to defecate “on themselves or in their rooms, which do not have commodes,” (according to the report) and refusing the kids the ability to make a single phone call for weeks and months on end. Reynolds then recommended remedial measures be taken by the city to ensure that something changes; that these kids were no longer denied their rights and severely mistreated.
Though Balberan doesn’t think the investigation went quite far enough in curtailing the abuses at YGC, he’s still proud of that moment so many years ago. It was a catalyst, laying the groundwork for a historic Board of Supervisors vote nearly four decades later to shut down Juvenile Hall for good.
Carolyn Goossen, a legislative aide for Supervisor Hilary Ronen, cited “Uncle Ray” and his years of activism as one of the reasons the move to close Juvenile Hall by 2021 was ultimately successful.
“Shutting it down was something that the community has been talking about for decades,” she said. “There is literally an organization in the Mission that was run by Ray Balberan that was working towards this end.”
The call to the White House was the start of something big. And it taught Ray something important about how to make a difference.
Lesson no. 1: Document everything.
Ray Balberan spent nearly 40 years of his life as a nonprofit case manager, mostly for Real Alternatives Program (R.A.P.) in the Mission, working to keep kids off the streets and out of gangs. That meant that his role was often to accompany his clients to court, advocating for them in a way that public defenders, lawyers and parents couldn’t or wouldn’t. There’s one teenager and one court visit he remembers in particular.
“So we went to court, and I told the judge, ‘your honor, my client didn’t have a blanket [at YGC].’ So she stopped the whole thing. Like what? We didn’t talk about what he’d done. Oh, his mother was there, the DA was there. The police had to chart, you know, a picture, they had all the facts on him. They were gonna wash them. The judge said, ‘I want the director of Juvenile Hall to come to court.’ I said, ‘Oh fuck.’ And so she, she asked her, ‘there’s this boy, did he have a blanket?’ And she said, ‘I really don’t know, your honor.’ And she said, ‘How many kids don’t have a blanket?’ ‘I don’t know. I have to go check.’ And she said, ‘Okay.’ And she let my guy go. And I learned something from that. The court has to know what’s happened to these kids. You don’t have blankets, they don’t have shoes, and they don’t have soap. You can’t keep them in here. So that opened up my head. That’s why we need to document every fucking thing.”
Lesson no. 2: Protecting children from abuses of power requires vigilance and courage.
As Balberan described the conditions children experienced while incarcerated more than 35 years ago, he reflected on the similarity between his findings and recent revelations of squalid conditions experienced by refugee children at detention centers at the southern border. It was a reminder of the continued vulnerability of children — especially poor children, especially immigrants and non-white children.
“It makes no difference where you are,” he said. “You could be here in San Francisco, you could be at the border. You can be treated just as cruel because you’re a child, and you’re unprotected. But children are the most protected class in the United States according to the law. I mean if you look up the laws, there are tons of laws protecting him. But the people are beyond the law, they don’t, they don’t want to use the law to protect children, you know?”
After talking to me in his living room for nearly two hours, Ray called me later that night and left a message. He’d been thinking about what we talked about, about the similarities between now and then. It was important, he said, that we know our history. That we see the way power corrupts.
Lesson no. 3: Some things are too broken to fix.
In June 2019, nearly four decades after Balberan and his co-workers at R.A.P. first began their crusade to shut down YGC, the Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 to close Juvenile Hall by 2021, citing exorbitant costs and extensive research that says locking up children doesn’t fix them. This vote reflected Balberan’s perception that some things you cannot fix; some things you have to tear down altogether. It’s a concept that he has been explaining for as long as he can remember. “Reform is dangerous,” he told me, and it took a while to sink in. How can trying to make something better be bad? But in his opinion, the very existence of a juvenile hall was a type of reform that never worked.
“Before, not too long ago, children were sent to prison with adults,” he explained. “Then we said, ‘no, you can’t punish kids because in a few years they are going to change.’ Physically, they are going to grow, mentally, they are going to expand. They’re going to be a different person. So you can’t punish them. So they became juveniles, wayward children. So they’re not criminals, but look at the places they’re in. Because the system that reformed it was supported and run by the adult system. So you know that reform did not work.”
The community-based alternatives to incarceration that Balberan and the current Board of Supervisors dreamed up might really work, Balberan thinks. But it’s not reform, he says: it’s a revolution.
Lesson no. 4: Change happens from the ground up.
What Balberan emphasized again and again was the importance of community-based interventions for struggling youth. In other words, how important it is to have case workers and advocates who belong to the community; who know the language and customs. Balberan described his personalized approach as a case manager as one rooted in compassion and understanding.
“Since they are children, not criminals,” he said, “they can be treated. We find out their risk factors in their lives, and their strengths. We have to go with the strengths, too. We can’t just say, ‘Oh, he has all these risks.’ He he has some strengths in his life, too. And then we present the court with a community-based treatment program that would help reduce the risk factors in his life. Whatever they may be. And then we have to empower the young person that it’s his plan. That he has some agency.”
Balberan remembers the love he felt from the community when he was a case manager; the people who welcomed him into their home, into their families, fed him. Did he consider the kids he helped keep off the streets part of his family? He nodded.
“I still do.”
Lesson no. 5: Don’t be intimidated.
It takes a lot to go up against a system that was never built for you, Balberan says. Resting on the couch, he leans to his side, holding himself up with one arm. He hurt his back the day before, and is still recovering. His days are quieter than they once were — but he’s not fully retired from his work of making the world a more just place. He speaks about the confidence and conviction he developed when he was a young man.
“Sometimes you just have to get up in the system, get up in it, and don’t be intimidated by. At one time, the system intimidated us, our families, our children — it intimidated us. But we’re not afraid of the system, not anymore. We learned that we can change the system.”
Lesson no. 6: The kids know best.
Balberan is joyous that his years of work have paid off — that, finally, Juvenile Hall is set to close for good. But he still has some advice for the working group that will be in charge of crafting the system that will replace Juvenile Hall.
“I think the young people should have a major stake in the new programs,” Ray said. “I really feel that it should be in their hands; the care and treatment and love and alternatives for their peers.”
In fact, he thinks the working group doesn’t need very many adults.
“Working with young people helped me learn a lot about myself,” he said. “I learned that I don’t have all the answers.”
Ray Balberan is a talker. He has so much to share about fighting the good fight, and what it takes to change the world. This is draining but, in many ways, it was the nature of the work that kept him going.
“I loved it,” he said. “I had a purpose. It brings out the best of people, fighting for self-determination.”