Early troubles plague newly reopened Calif. juvenile hall
To address staffing concerns, the county gave deputy probation officers a 12% raise and authorized bonuses to incentivize working in the juvenile hall
By Jason Henry
Los Angeles Daily News
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County beat expectations when it managed to move 274 youth to the newly renovated Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey on a narrow two-month schedule, but now the county has an even more momentous task before it: keeping Los Padrinos from getting shut down, too.
The recent discovery of a gun on site just days after youth moved in and the poor conditions witnessed by visitors over the weekend suggest the move hasn’t resolved many of the deficiencies that forced the state to shutter Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar and Central Juvenile Hall in Lincoln Heights.
The Board of State and Community Corrections, the regulatory agency overseeing juvenile halls in California, will begin the same type of inspections at both Los Padrinos and the Secure Youth Treatment Facility (SYTF) at Nidorf in August as part of a months-long process that will ultimately determine if those facilities are “suitable” for the confinement of youth. If L.A. County can’t pass the inspections, Los Padrinos could be closed like the county’s other troubled juvenile halls.
In a statement, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said she welcomes the BSCC inspectors. The stakes are too high for Los Padrinos to meet the same fate as the other halls, she said.
“They are our partners in this and we need to know sooner than later whether we are on the right path,” she said.
Facility has ‘plenty of problems’
Despite the department’s efforts in recent months, the BSCC is “going to find plenty of problems” at Los Padrinos, according to Sean Garcia-Leys, a member of the L.A. County Probation Oversight Commission and executive director of the Peace and Justice Law Center.
Garcia-Leys inspected Los Padrinos during family visitation on Saturday, July 22, and was “disappointed” to discover the same issues that have plagued the the county’s juvenile halls for years. It was especially disappointing because Garcia-Leys had previously inspected the facility in June, before it reopened, and had a much more positive experience, he said.
The facility’s air conditioning wasn’t working during his more recent visit. Paint dripped down the walls, potentially from the heat, and a strong smell of mildew emanated from the showers, he said. The youth he spoke to complained of spiders and cockroaches, he said. One youth had multiple bug bites on his face.
“There were dead bugs in the corners all around,” he said. “After a half-hour there, I found myself trying to wipe imaginary bugs off me, because it just was an uncomfortable place.”
The youth seemed increasingly agitated by the lack of activities available to them, staff and parents told Garcia-Leys. Detainees who had access to books, gaming consoles and a television at Barry J. Nidorf had none of those ready for them at Los Padrinos, according to Garcia-Leys. The facility’s WiFi wasn’t working and the televisions in the two units visited by Garcia-Leys couldn’t be used.
“There was really nothing for them to do besides pace,” he said.
Garcia-Leys noticed signs of drug use as well, an indication that contraband may still be getting in, despite the county’s ongoing efforts to tighten security in response to a series of overdoses, including a fatal one, in recent months.
The units visited by Garcia-Leys are self-contained, meaning youth have access to a classroom inside the same building. Each cell also has its own toilet, a significant improvement over the other two juvenile halls where youth complained to state inspectors that they had to urinate on the floor because there wasn’t enough staff to take them to the restroom overnight.
While the new layouts ensure youth are able to attend school and use the restroom even with the limited staffing available, the self- contained units eliminate opportunities to spend even a short time outdoors.
“I talked to a lot of youth who were only outside in sunlight two or three times in the whole week,” he said.
The move to Los Padrinos is meant to consolidate the staff of two juvenile halls to one location to more efficiently use the Probation Department’s dwindled numbers. A report released earlier this month found that nearly a third of the employees in the juvenile halls are on full-time leave. The number of employees calling out hasn’t improved in recent months.
Employees were still working long shifts, in excess of 16 hours, during Garcia-Leys’ visit, he said. Some volunteered to work longer to ensure parents could spend enough time with their children, while others were held over.
The Probation Department did not respond to a series of questions relating to Garcia-Leys’ visit.
Security still lacking
Garcia-Leys visited Los Padrinos a day after the facility was placed on lockdown due to the discovery of a gun on the campus. Despite the incident, it did not appear there was enough staff to “do adequate searches” on visitation day, he said.
Visitors went through metal detectors and bags through scanners, but Garcia-Leys said the security company manning the checkpoint did not conduct thorough searches when someone caught the attention of a drug-sniffing dog, or set off the metal detector. One grandmother was told to leave, without being searched, when a dog alerted on her.
“There really wasn’t enough staff to do more than that,” he said.
The Probation Department declined to answer questions about the firearm found on Friday, July 21, or its origins, and would only provide a statement indicating that the gun was found in “an area accessible only to staff.”
“No youth had access to it, and nobody was injured,” a spokesperson said. The spokesperson would not address reports in the Los Angeles Times suggesting the weapon was in an office that juveniles use to make phone calls and for counseling.
It is illegal to bring a firearm into a juvenile facility. Local law enforcement are investigating the firearm, according to the statement.
Hahn called the incident “absolutely unacceptable.”
“Every single person entering our juvenile facilities is supposed to be searched by security, including all staff and visitors,” she stated. “If this current security company is unable to do that, we should find a new one.”
A BSCC inspector was on site at Los Padrinos on July 24.
Staffing still a concern
The BSCC approved the reopening Los Padrinos in early July following a less intensive preinspection.
The Probation Department transferred the 274 youth to the facility over the course of about two weeks, with the last group arriving on July 18, just five days before the state’s deadline to empty Barry J. Nidorf and Central Juvenile Halls.
“We’ve gone from Mission Impossible to mission accomplished,” interim Chief Probation Officer Guillermo Viera Rosa said at the time. “The relocation of nearly 300 pre-disposition youth safely and in record time demonstrates what public servants across many L.A. County departments can do when everyone pulls together in the face of daunting odds.”
The county has taken a number of steps to try to address the staffing crisis.
In May, Viera Rosa ordered all 3,000 sworn officers in the department serve at least one shift per month in the juvenile halls and is in the middle of of a hiring campaign to add 300 new recruits to Los Padrinos and the SYTF. The county recently gave deputy probation officers a 12% raise, spread out over three years, and authorized signing, educational and site-specific bonuses to incentivize working in the juvenile hall and the SYTF.
In a statement, Hans Liang, president of the L.A. County Deputy Probation Officers Union, said the union is working with the county to address the remaining staffing issues at Los Padrinos.
“The facility remains understaffed and we are working with the County to secure adequate staffing levels by expediting hiring and by assuring that officers who have been injured on the job get the medical treatment they need so they can return to work as quickly and safely as possible,” he said in a statement.