Los Angeles County Probation Commissioner Azael “Sal” Martinez Sonoquí, a resident of Boyle Heights and former adolescent offender, paid a special visit to the Central Juvenile Hall on Eastlake Avenue last Friday.
Martinez, who first visited the facility in the 1980s as a juvenile detainee, recalls being in the Eastlake infirmary after being released from the hospital and nursing a through-and-through gunshot wound to his neck. He was shot by police after being caught joy-riding in a stolen car, he told EGP. With help from a now deceased probation officer, he turned his life around.
But the Aug. 31st visit to juvenile hall was not intended to be a stroll down memory lane, nor was he there to inspect the facility—one of his duties as a commissioner. Instead he was there to donate sports equipment —two volleyball nets, two dodge balls, two soccer balls, two volleyballs and one basketball — for the girls incarcerated at the facility to use.
“I came last Sunday and they only had one ball, a huge football,” said Martinez, who used his own money to purchase the equipment.
“Recreation is important for team building, boys and girls get to know each other on a more personal level and my goal is that this approach breaks the cycles that separate them on the streets by turfs and leads them to a less destructive culture,” said Martinez, explaining why he chose to donate the sports equipment.
According to Detention Service Officer Ana Garcia-Sandoval, the Eastlake’s two female units have a basketball, some jump ropes and some vinyl balls. She said the girls will really appreciate and be excited that volleyball is now an option.
Probation Director George G. Yan said Martinez is very involved and comes often to talk to the juveniles.
“He always asks what we need, if we tell him we need something, he brings it,” Yan said, explaining that most of their budget goes to facility maintenance and operations.
Like teachers, he added, detention supervisors sometimes buy art supplies out of their own pocket.
Today, Sept. 6, marks Martinez’s one-year anniversary as a commissioner. He told EGP he plans to keep doing what he has been doing for the remainder of his four-year term in order to ensure the incarcerated juveniles make the most of their detention.
Martinez also hopes to inspire the troubled teens with his book “Hidden Bars Shackled Dreams,” an autobiography. He has been giving out the book in the hope that some will see that they can transform their lives, just like he did.
Martinez recalls the saddest day of his life was the day he went home from Camp Mendenhall where he had earned the distinction of being named “mayor.” Yan echoed that sentiment, saying a lot of kids say they don’t want to go home.
Martinez told EGP that aftercare — providing educational and career training—is his top priority and the vision of Supervisor Gloria Molina, who appointed him to the commission. Aftercare is “the community center piece that will begin to rebuild these kids’ lives,” he said.
About 52 of the more than 300 youth detained at Eastlake juvenile hall are female, according to Yan, who added that many of the girls had been arrested for prostitution. He said the county is addressing the problem by placing the girls in a program for sexually exploited youth. The program aims to help these girls get away and stay away from their pimps by seeing them as victims, rather than criminals.
The probation department also has a family resource unit for girls who have children while in custody; and special housing for abandoned and abused minors who are caught committing crimes. Some of the youth detained have learning or developmental disabilities, others are suicidal, Yan said.
Beside the facility on Eastlake Avenue, there are two other juvenile halls in the county: one in Sylmar and one in Downey.
Last year, Martinez held a benefit dinner to raise funds for the incarcerated youth. Proceeds from the first event enabled him to “adopt” four detention halls. He said he used the $3,500 raised to purchase soccer balls, volleyballs, basketballs, dodge balls, handballs and board games, like monopoly. Next month, he will again hold the Second Chance Benefit.
Tickets are already on sale.
The Second Chance Benefit is Tuesday, Oct. 18, from 6 to 10 p.m. at Mi Pueblo Banquet Hall, 3650 Olympic Blvd, 2nd Floor, in Boyle Heights. The event is a beer and wine garden with guacamole taquito appetizers, and features Comedian Pat Gallegos and his crew. George Magallanes will emcee. Tickets are $20: to purchase, email Martinez at firstname.lastname@example.org