When young men arrive at Pine Grove — California’s first and only remaining rehabilitation camp for serious or violent juvenile offenders — they notice the trees. Pine Grove, also known as “fire camp,” sits in a small valley just above the snow line, between a casino and the western Sierra Nevada. The second thing they notice is that there is no barbed wire surrounding the property.
Marcus Tapia, Kermit Moore, and Kain Castro came to Pine Grove in 2016. Tapia and Moore had grown up in Los Angeles, raised primarily by their grandparents. Tapia was imprisoned for armed robbery and gun possession; Moore for attempted murder. Castro had grown up in Salinas, where he lived with his mother, brother, and sister. In his teens, he was arrested and sent to prison for assault. Each earned their placement at Pine Grove with a record of good behavior and by taking classes and programs. Like the others at the camp, Tapia, Moore, and Castro learned to contain fires, fell trees, and clear flood channels. “Everything was good about it except the time, you know?” Tapia says. “Because time kills you.” For Moore, Pine Grove felt like a “neutral zone” — for once, his gang or race didn’t seem to matter.
There are two ways to leave Pine Grove: get paroled or get kicked out and serve the rest of your time back in a juvenile prison. Tapia and Moore took the latter route — Tapia for getting into a fight with another ward, Moore for talking back to a captain. After more than a year at fire camp, they each were transferred to a juvenile prison in Ventura County. Tapia was released in February 2018, two months before his 21st birthday. Moore was paroled over the summer. The months out have not been easy.
Castro was considered a model ward at Pine Grove and was released in October 2017. Coming home felt like a test, he says, “like everyone’s looking at you.” A few days before he was let out, his older brother violated parole and was sent back to prison. Eight months later, Castro was arrested for missing a probation appointment. Soon after he went back to jail in Monterey County, he got into a fight and was charged with assault. He’s now waiting to be sentenced.