From fake food deliveries to drones: How drugs get into L.A. County’s juvenile halls
Drug drop offs at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall are so blatant that arrows were spray painted on the fences to indicate where to throw the substances
The Orange County Register
LOS ANGELES — Two Los Angeles County juvenile facilities have such lax security that illicit substances and other contraband are thrown over fences, dropped by drones and even delivered by fake DoorDash drivers and others who walk through security without ever being searched, according to a new report by the county’s watchdog office.
An investigation by the Office of Inspector General, submitted to the Board of Supervisors on Friday, April 7, cited a troubling lapse at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall as an example of the security issues at the juvenile halls. Two detainees overdosed, including a teen who was hospitalized twice in a two-day period, before the staff at Nidorf conducted a search of the unit where the teens lived. Both teens were saved using Narcan, which reverses opiate overdoses.
The K-9 search of that single unit on March 1 — two days after the first overdose — uncovered 11 fentanyl pills, two unknown pills, large bundles of what appeared to be more fentanyl, a crushed pill on a windowsill and a makeshift straw with a white residue on it.
A third youth in the unit appeared to be under the influence of drugs at time and was searched, but “was not drug tested or transferred to the medical unit for observation,” according to the report from the Office of Inspector General.
Searches like this weren’t frequent, investigators found.
“The documents reviewed by the Office of Inspector General indicate this is the only K-9 search that was conducted in this specific unit since January 1, 2023,” wrote Max Huntsman, the county’s inspector general, in the report.
The new report states pervasive security flaws, exasperated by a staffing crisis, have allowed drugs to proliferate at not only Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, but the Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles as well.
“I am incredibly concerned with the reports that the Probation Department, the Probation Oversight Commission, and the Office of Inspector General have shared about the number of illicit substances entering the County’s juvenile halls,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said in a statement. “I am also aware that there have been at least three overdoses, which, fortunately, were reversed due to the Board of Supervisors’ passage of a motion to ensure Narcan was available in our juvenile halls.”
Visitors not searched
The drug drops at Nidorf were so blatant that arrows were spray painted on the fences to indicate where to throw the substances. The Probation Department has since implemented perimeter checks three times a day to check for contraband, but does not check outside the walls or keep a log of when they occur, the report states.
The Probation Department is investigating acquiring technology to combat drones that allegedly have been used to drop drugs into the facilities, according to the report.
The report suggests the lax security at both juvenile halls did not make it difficult to get drugs in through the front door either. While the entrances at the halls are staffed with security, the contracted security company allegedly “has strict instructions not to touch any individuals entering the facility,” according to Huntsman’s report.
“Office of Inspector General staff observed that bags were not searched during the screenings, and that electric security monitors were not consistently monitored,” Huntsman wrote. “Even when an alert was sounded as staff or other persons walked through the metal detector, no further actions were taken by the security personnel to screen the individuals with a wand or to conduct a search.”
Thermoses and other containers were placed on top of the scanning machines when staff walked through the metal detectors and then retrieved without any examination by the security team, the report noted. At the same time, other entrances used by staff weren’t monitored at all, according to the OIG.
Even in areas where checkpoints are in place, the employees often disregarded policies meant to stop contraband from entering the facilities, Huntsman stated. Teens even used fake delivery drivers to bring drugs into the facilities with staff either knowingly or unintentionally assisting.
“According to the information provided to the Office of Inspector General, youths arranged for family or friends to come to the facility disguised as DoorDash delivery drivers,” Huntsman wrote. “The Probation Department staff, in contravention of Probation Department policies, would then accept the order at the entrance of the facility, claim it as their own, and then drop it off to the youth as a favor.”
Those interviewed by the OIG said they later found contraband among some food deliveries, including “pills wrapped inside a burrito.”
“While the Probation Department has policies covering visitors, what food items can be brought into the facilities and by whom, and procedures on how to properly handle contraband recovered at facilities, these policies are not being followed or strictly enforced,” Huntsman stated.
When drugs are found, neither juvenile hall had procedures in place to properly store or catalog the contraband. Staff at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall placed contraband inside paper or plastic bags and then stashed the drugs in a locked closet in the superintendent’s office.
The system was even more lax at Central Juvenile Hall.
“While a Probation Department staffer at CJH claimed that contraband is discarded, the staffer later explained that by discarded they actually meant that the contraband items are kept in a tote bag inside an office, on a coat rack, with jackets hiding it,” the report states.
Neither facility notified law enforcement about the contraband or created an inventory to protect against theft. Sometimes, unauthorized pills at Central Juvenile Hall were “given” to the K-9 units for training, but without any documentation “as to when and how pills recovered at the facility are transferred to their K-9 unit.”
The OIG’s report includes several recommendations, namely that staff should follow the existing policies and be punished for violations; searches should be conducted more frequently and thoroughly at the security checkpoints, in the units and randomly among staff; and the Probation Department should deploy more technologies, including CCTV to monitor the perimeter fences and Vapor Tracer units to scan for illicit substances.
A spokesperson for the Probation Department did not respond to a request for comment. However, a March 22 letter from interim Chief Karen Fletcher to the supervisors indicates the department is already working on ways to address the flow of illicit substances, including utilizing more K-9 searches, asking law enforcement to increase patrols around the exterior of the facilities, and adding more security to the facilities.
“If future incursions of contraband arise, the Department will use an assessment of those incidents to strengthen any disparity between security expectations and actual performance,” Fletcher wrote. “Complicity of employees and/or others with the entry of contraband will be accompanied by a due diligence security and causation review in support of appropriate disciplinary actions and/or criminal referrals.”
A year of turmoil
The Board of Supervisors requested the report from the OIG following more than a year of turmoil in the juvenile hall system. California’s Board of State and Community Corrections is expected to vote Thursday on whether to declare the juvenile halls “unsuitable” for youths, a move that could force the county to empty the halls if the Probation Department is unable to address its deficiencies.
Last year, the probation officials moved about 140 juvenile detainees from the Central Juvenile Hall to Nidorf over a weekend to avoid a state inspection of the facility. The BCSS eventually did inspect the facility and declared it unsuitable in June. The department addressed those issues, but then a subsequent inspection found new problems at both Nidorf and Central Juvenile Hall.
The county has struggled to retain employees in the halls and faces an “excess number of staff call-outs, staff no-shows and staff otherwise not reporting for work per shift,” according to the BCSS inspection report. Staff members reported they often are forced to work back-to-back shifts, or beyond 24 hours.
“There have been multiple incidents where both youth and staff have been assaulted,” the inspectors stated. “Required functions of the facility are routinely canceled due to staffing such as outdoor exercise or activity, programming, and visitation to name a few. Schooling has also been impacted.”
The staffing problems have led to detainees being kept in their rooms for excessive amounts of time and to an insufficient amount of safety checks.
Staff of the Board of State and Community Corrections has recommended giving the county 90 days to implement a correction plan submitted by Fletcher before conducting another inspection.
The supervisors fired Probation Chief Adolfo Gonzales in early March as “the first step of a long road to fixing our juvenile halls,” according to Supervisor Janice Hahn at the time.
“The state has found them unsuitable, and they are at risk of being shut down. Youth are being hurt and are not attending school. Staff are being attacked and many are not showing up to work. The void in leadership starting from the top has allowed the situation to fester,” Hahn said last month.
The Board of Supervisors appointed Guillermo Viera Rosa, the former head of California’s adult parole division, as its chief strategist for juvenile operations at its last meeting.