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Teen recaptured after escaping from Calif. juvenile hall during brawl with staff

The fight began when seven youths assaulted staff and broke an exterior door attached to their living area

Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall

Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

By Jason Henry
Pasadena Star-News, Calif.

DOWNEY, Calif — Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall remained on lockdown a day after a teenager managed to briefly escape during a fight that involved 13 detainees, according to the Probation Department.

The 18-year-old slipped out of the secure facility amid the fighting, but was immediately apprehended by members of the Probation Department’s Special Enforcement Operations unit. Officials asked the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to book the young man as an adult in light of his age.

The other 12 youths have been placed in individual rooms “under one-on-one supervision,” according to a statement released by the probation department.

“No serious injuries to youth or staff were reported during the incident, and a subsequent headcount found all 273 youth at the facility present and accounted for,” the statement read.

The fight began around 8 p.m. Friday, July 28, when seven youths assaulted staff and broke an exterior door attached to their living area. They then broke the window of a second unit, allowing six others to join them on the facility grounds. The oldest climbed a wall and escaped onto an adjacent golf course, according to the probation department.

Police officers from Downey, South Gate and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department responded to assist with what the probation officials called a “major disturbance.” Footage captured by NBC 4 showed police in riot gear and vehicles surrounding the facility with spotlights trained on the walls.

The Downey Police Department, which originally warned neighbors to stay inside with doors and windows locked, issued an update around 9:30 p.m. stating that the “facility has been secured and there is no threat to the public.”

In response to the episode, interim Probation Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa has ordered that a probation department bureau chief be present during every shift at Los Padrinos and has temporarily reinstated the use of oleoresin capsicum spray (OC spray), a type of pepper spray, that the department has been saying it would phase out for years. Officials originally touted that OC spray would not be used in Los Padrinos at all.

Viera Rosa said it would only be used until the facility is stabilized, and that he would revisit the decision in a few days.

“Any time you move a large number of youths, especially to a new facility as we have in the last week or two, there is a potential for problems and we plan for those,” Viera Rosa said in a statement. “But Friday night’s disturbance was an emergency that required an immediate and strong response. I’m thankful that no youth were seriously hurt, and with the help of other law enforcement agencies, we were able to re-establish order.”

Viera Rosa is bringing on Michael Minor, a private security consultant and former director of the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation’s Division of Juvenile Justice, to work with staff to stabilize operations at Los Padrinos, according to the department.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose district includes Downey, offered her thanks to the “law enforcement officers who responded and got this situation under control quickly.”

“We need to understand exactly what happened last night at Los Padrinos,” Hahn said. “I expect our interim Chief Probation Officer to get to the bottom of what went wrong and make assurances to the Board of Supervisors and the City of Downey that this is not going to happen again.”

Sean Garcia-Leys, a member of the county Probation Oversight Commission and executive director of the Peace and Justice Law Center, wasn’t surprised by the incident. The department has struggled with an unending staffing crisis for more than a year, and though the consolidation at Los Padrinos was meant to help with that, early signs suggest Los Padrinos is facing the same problems that led to the shutdown of Los Angeles County’s other two juvenile halls.

“This is the inevitable result of confining too many youth compared to the number of staff the department has available,” Garcia-Leys said. “We need to confine fewer youth so the staff we have can do their jobs well.”

The incident is the latest in a string of failures since Los Padrinos reopened two weeks ago. The Probation Department had scrambled for months to prepare Los Padrinos for the 274 predisposition youth who needed to be relocated to it due to state’s forced closure of Barry J. Nidorf in Sylmar and Central near downtown Los Angeles over poor conditions. The move was pulled off without incident over the course of five days starting on July 14 and it seemed the department would get a fresh start.

Yet, almost immediately, problems emerged.

The department found an unattended firearm in an area accessible only to staff on July 21. It is illegal to bring a firearm into a juvenile facility, even for those who can carry weapons legally outside of it.

The Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General observed searches of the youth and their personal belongings during the transfers, but noted that “there was no indication that individual staff or their boxes coming from either CJH or BJNJH were searched in the move to LPJH,” according to a July 26 report to the Board of Supervisors.

“Following the discovery of the firearm, the entire LPJH facility was searched by Probation Department Special Enforcement Operations officers and no other contraband was found,” wrote Max Huntsman, the inspector general. “While the firearm may not have been brought to LPJH during the move, its discovery and the lack of screening of staff and staff belongings raises continuing concerns regarding the introduction of contraband into the County’s juvenile facilities.”

That matter is still under investigation by an outside law enforcement agency, according to officials.

Then, the next day, parents and other guests attending visitation day experienced uncomfortable conditions. The air conditioning had died and the fresh paint on the walls dripped in the heat. Garcia-Leys, who inspected the facility that day, described a strong smell of mildew and said the youth complained to him of bug infestations. One displayed multiple bites on his face.

At the time, youth appeared increasingly agitated by the new environment and the lack of activities available to them compared to the older juvenile halls, he said.

“There was really nothing for them to do besides pace,” he said.

Garcia-Leys said he noticed signs of drug use among some of the youth, another indication the department is still failing to prevent contraband from entering the facility.

Following the hectic week, the Probation Department announced a new superintendent for Los Padrinos at 5 p.m. on a Sunday and stated it would be transitioning the prior leadership of the juvenile hall to “other areas of the department” the next day.

The Board of State and Community Corrections, the regulatory body that shut down Nidorf and Central, is expected to begin inspections at Los Padrinos in August to determine if that facility should be allowed to continue housing youth. The state board previously gave the green light for Los Padrinos to reopen following a series of pre-inspections.

The process to determine the suitability of the facility is more thorough and could take months to complete. If the Probation Department fails those inspections and is unable to submit a plan to fix the deficiencies, Los Angeles County could find itself facing yet another shutdown by the end of this year.


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