Artist Claws Out Of The Juvenile Detention System

One young student shares his struggle to fight his way back to the top


Hector Campos, 20, student, sketches fish at the Mt. SAC koi pond on June 5. Photo credit: Abraham Navarro/SAC.Media.

Emerging from the labyrinth that is the American juvenile justice system lost and institutionalized, Hector Campos, 20, was set free by his art.

For Campos, it all started with trying to fit in. He remembers being picked on for being smart and passing classes. “As I got older I started to neglect my education cause I wanted to fit in. I wanted not to be made fun of,” he said.

When Campos started high school he wanted to create a new image of himself. “I’d see the same kids from first grade all the way to middle school, so every embarrassing moment that happened, they remembered. Everything that I got made fun of for never went away,” Campos said. “I couldn’t really create myself as a new person.”

“I started hanging out with kids who would smoke just so I could fit in, and I ended up using smoking as a coping mechanism,” he said.

One day, he went with a friend who ditched school to buy BB guns to play with. Once they came back to school, he and his friends were called out of class and searched. This revealed the BB guns that they had bought and the school called the police on him and the other students.

Campos said the officers waited until school was out to take him and his friends to the police cars to make an example out of them.

“They wanted kids to see that we were bad kids,” he said. “We ended up getting expelled. I spent one night in juvy, and so did my friend, and we both got let out on house arrest.”

Afterwards, he had to go and plead his case in front of the Pomona Unified School Board to prevent himself from being expelled from the whole school district.

“They gave me a second chance and they let me go to Fremont. The thing about it was that I was socially awkward as a kid, and to pull me out of my roots and everything I knew, and throw me into a new school gave me a lot of social anxiety,” he said.

Later at Fremont, he was called into the dean’s office. After a white student was caught with two grams of marijuana and left to go back to class, Campos was searched, revealing a lighter and an empty Ziplock bag. An officer was called to the school to talk to him.

“She comes over, she looks really mean, and she’s shouting at my face trying to get me to say something back to her. She tells me, ‘If you say something back to me, I myself will go to the court, and I’ll make sure that they give you more time,’” he said. Campos was then expelled from Fremont and sent to Park North Continuation High School.

Feeling as though everything was going downhill because of his situation, he began to hang out in the streets drinking as suicidal tendencies enveloped him.

One night he came home drunk and got in an argument with his mom.

“I just decided to tell her, ‘This is a lot, I’m just going to end up killing myself,’ so I locked myself in the restroom. She called the cops and the ambulance came and took me to the hospital,” Campos said.

They put him on a a 5150, which mandated involuntary commitment to a psychiatric institution. He was sent to an institution in Redlands, California where his parole officer met him afterwards with handcuffs.

Campos spent most of his high school years bouncing between juvenile detention programs. He went to juvenile hall, three placement programs and one camp program. He remembered the camp program as purely medical, with pills and chemicals being thrown into adolescent issues like some sort of stew of incomprehensible problems.

Campos remembered that the camp was an old hospital, which he described as being more based on psychs and meds. The therapists were in charge of what happened to the patients, and they weren’t always helpful. He felt out of place there as well, and felt like he wasn’t supposed to be there. All his life, he had been a good kid and now he was way out of place.

The worst place out of all was Camp Rocky in San Dimas. He grew homesick and as a result he acted out and was sent to Camp Rocky. Campos described Camp Rocky as a place where reckless kids who don’t pay attention go. Camp Rocky was meant for all the medicated delinquents, but to Campos it was like being locked up with a bunch of bullies. At school he would have two or three, but at Camp Rocky everybody was a bully.

They saw that he was small and thought that he was weak. They would tease and torment him, trying to lure out a reaction, to toughen him up and do him a favor, as they saw it. They would all gang up on him and they would try to get him to fight them.

“I’m just constantly being pushed around and thrown down, I don’t feel like I’ll make it here,” he remembered telling the guards.

Campos said that he threatened staff at the camp with suicide if they didn’t move him out. Eventually they moved him to a different program, which allowed him to go on field trips and visit home. After successfully completing the program, he was released but felt so institutionalized that he didn’t know what to do with his free time. Every day, he had woken up and had a schedule planned out for him, from breakfast to bedtime.

Now he was back home with no structure.

“It was too much because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said as his voice trembled. “I had been away for so long, so all I ended up doing was getting drunk and getting high and I ended up back out on the streets.”

He ended up acting out again and was recommitted to juvenile hall.

Campos later had an accident and hurt himself. “It was my friends birthday the day before, so I ended up getting blackout drunk,” Campos said.

He ditched school on his bike and fell, hitting his head. Students called 911 after finding him unconscious down the road when coming out of school. The ambulance arrived and took him to Pomona hospital, but since they did not have the proper equipment to keep him alive, they airlifted Campos to Los Angeles.

“They took me to LA by helicopter,” he said. “On the helicopter ride there, I died.”

After being revived, the swelling in his head eventually wore off.

But the way he saw it, he only blinked.

One second he was in the school hallway and the next second he was in the hospital room with his mom. She told him that he had died in the air next to the hospital tower where he was born.

“I found, in a way, a rebirth,” he said. “Like I had come full circle,”

Nothing made sense to him but he knew he was meant to be alive. “Or else, I would have died.”

Thinking he would be incarcerated by his parole officer again, Campos went AWOL, only to be caught later living with his cousin in El Monte. This time he went into juvenile hall with a different mindset. He was prepared to focus on bettering himself in preparation for being sent back out to the outside world. He started planning to go back to school and started reading books and drawing a lot. Campos said that he tried to draw something at least once a day.

After trying to pursue an education from within the system, he came to realize that there was a trap set up for the youth.

“When they did bad things, they got locked up, right? They got taken away from everything, but they didn’t get the education, the proper tools” he said. “So if they go back, they’re going to see that they’ve fallen back. They’re going to get frustrated and they’re going to get discouraged, and they’re going to go back to their other lives.”

Already familiar with the cycle that had encouraged him to avoid being thrown back into the loop, he wanted out.

Campos was released for his senior year of high school and was told that he had messed up enough that if he didn’t graduate, he was going to be sent to prison. His counselor told him about AB 216, which allowed him to graduate with less credits.

Rushing to pass his classes in order to stay out of prison, Campos dedicated all his time and effort into saving the last chance he was going to get to change his life. He walked alone at graduation because all his friends left him when he started scrambling to focus on graduating instead of hanging out.

After graduation, Campos spent his summer as an intern for a nonprofit setting up events for kids. He realized that because college was the least of his worries when he went back to high school, he was lost when it came to making the next step. He eventually chose to attend Mt. SAC.

When Campos first came to Mt. SAC, he had no idea what he had to do. He felt that the juvenile detention system neglected his education, and upon his own release he felt the drastic repercussions of being released and ended up dropping out and working instead.

But Campos still wanted to go back to college. He ended up going back to see his high school counselor and ask for help, but the counselor wasn’t able to assist him. While back at his high school, Campos met Fabián Pavón, a then UC Santa Barbara student from Mt. SAC searching for students to be part of a play.

Realizing Campos went to Mt. SAC as well, Pavón took Campos under his wing and gave him a part in the play. Pavón also invited him to a Minority Male Initiative retreat at UCLA where he met some of the Administrators of Mt. SAC and after hearing his story, they offered him a job on campus.

After coming back to Mt. SAC, he knew more people and was exposed to MEChA, the Chicano Student Movement, and became the Inter Club Council Officer for the club. As an officer, he helped with events such as MEChA’s fall Día de los Muertos event in 2017.

Campos feels that even though he fought his way tooth, nail and bone out of the Juvenile detention system, he still has a lot of work to do moving forward in his career and at Mt. SAC.

Heat tempered his art and character into what they are today, but Campos has done well not to let his circumstances define him.

In the end, reaching out for help and putting effort into himself helped him achieve higher education and led to him becoming a Mt. SAC student ambassador that specializes in student retainment and inreach.

Campos says he still has a lot of work to do to be proud of himself, but his art is a stepping stone to get him there.