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L.A. County installs razor wire, body scanners at juvenile hall to prevent escapes, keep drugs out

The Los Angeles County Probation Department, which has struggled to maintain staffing levels for years, is also rethinking the physical qualities it looks for in new hires due to the recent levels of violence

Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall

Los Angeles County moved some 275 youths to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, pictured here, in May 2023. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Dean Musgrove/TNS

By Jason Henry
Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Probation Department has installed razor wire along the walls of Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall and plans to set up full airport-style body scanners within the next month to prevent escape attempts and halt an influx of drugs.

The new security measures are largely contained to the county’s two largest juvenile facilities, Los Padrinos in Downey and the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility (SYTF) in Sylmar. Los Padrinos experienced two violent escape attempts in the first six months since it opened, while Nidorf has been plagued with drug overdoses, including one that led to the death of a teenager in the county’s custody in May.

Following the last escape in November, Probation Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa made the call to install razor wire along the interior walls of Los Padrinos and the work was completed in mid-December, according to the Probation Department. At a meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the probation chief described the decision as an “interim” solution that he would revisit once other measures, such as a proposal to install up to 50-foot-tall nets along the perimeter, are in place.

“I would say that six months ago, the idea of having razor wire on a juvenile facility would not have been well received by the public at large,” Viera Rosa told the board following the last escape attempt. “It’s but for this incident that we are convinced that the sophistication and the serious nature of the youth that we have in our custody requires this.”

The Board of Supervisors previously pushed the department to replace razor wire with “anti-climb rollers” at Barry J. Nidorf, according to an April 2023 report, but the supervisors have not opposed the installation of the razor wire at Los Padrinos.

Pepper spray redeployed following the first escape attempt in July, Viera Rosa announced he was temporarily reinstating the use of pepper spray, which the supervisors ordered the department to stop using by 2020, and that he would reassess that decision within a few days. A spokesperson said in August the chief’s “assessment of the conditions necessitating the temporary issuance of OC Spray is ongoing.”

Probation officers deployed pepper spray seven times in the first seven days of this year, according to a report.

While answering questions about the second escape in November, Viera Rosa acknowledged he is trying to strike a balance between safety and maintaining a “rehabilitative environment.”

“We were headed in one direction, and now we have had to say, without abandoning our commitment to providing an environment for rehabilitative purposes, that, in fact, we have to be honest with each other and say we have to gear up to be able to meet the violence of these young people head on and prevent escapes,” he told the supervisors.

Stopping the flow of drugs

Many of the new security improvements are designed to stop drugs and other contraband from entering the facilities.

The department has purchased Tek84 body scanners, similar to those used in airports, and expects the installation to occur within the next three weeks. The body scanners can scan a person from head to toes for weapons, drugs and other contraband.

A separate contraband detection technology was deployed at both Los Padrinos and the SYTF in December to scan the contents of letters, parcels and other items without opening them. The technology, MailSecur, can detect liquids, powders, electronics and even drug-laced paper, according to the department.

Viera Rosa also has deployed a dozen new “safety and security specialists” to patrol the interior and exteriors of the juvenile hall as an extra layer of security. The department, which has struggled to maintain staffing levels for years, also is rethinking the physical qualities it looks for in new hires due to the recent levels of violence, Viera Rosa said. A female guard had her keys taken during the last escape attempt, according to officials.

Staffing still a key issue

The county has struggled to bolster the department’s ranks. Nearly 40% of the 213 new hires since January 2023 have quit, officials said.

Staffing at Los Padrinos and Barry J. Nidorf was flagged as a key issue by state inspectors last year. Those same staffing shortages led to the state-imposed closure of the county’s two juvenile halls in the summer of 2023 and the rapid relocation to Los Padrinos, an aging facility that had not been used since 2019.

The staffing levels at Los Padrinos and Nidorf were similarly found to be noncompliant with the state’s minimum standards during inspections in August. Employees told the inspectors they were exhausted and felt unsafe due to unscheduled extensions to their shifts caused by an excessive amount of staff call-outs and leaves.

The county was forced to submit a plan to the Board of State and Community Corrections, the agency tasked with regulating California’s prisons and juvenile detention facilities, in October detailing how it would correct the staffing shortage and a host of other issues identified at the facilities.

The deadline to complete those fixes passed on Jan. 5 for Nidorf and on Jan. 10 for Los Padrinos.

L.A. County has since reported to the state that it has corrected all of the deficiencies at Los Padrinos and all but one of the issues identified at Nidorf, according to a BSCC spokesperson. State inspectors are expected to visit both facilities this week to verify the county’s compliance.

Regardless, Los Angeles County will have to appear before the BSCC at its next meeting in February for a “suitability determination” because it did not correct all of the areas of noncompliance at Nidorf, the BSCC spokesperson said. If the SYTF at Nidorf is found to be “unsuitable,” the county will have 60 days to address the remaining issues, or the facility will be shut down, much like the county’s other juvenile halls were last year.

In a letter to the BSCC, the Probation Department blamed the Department of Justice for delays that prevented staff from completing the necessary training before the Jan. 5 deadline. The letter states that the county’s training manuals had to be approved by the DOJ, per a court order, and the training is now expected to be completed by Feb. 9, just six days before the BSCC’s next meeting.

Critics are skeptical that the department has sufficiently addressed its staffing woes. The department’s corrective action plan, the document describing how it would address areas of noncompliance, states that “staffing numbers are slowly increasing as more full-time staff are reporting to work with more frequency.”

Sean Garcia-Leys, an oversight commissioner, said there may be more employees on-site, in part because of a requirement for field staff to work weekly shifts in the halls, but not enough of those employees are inside the units with the juveniles.

“There’s no evidence that anything is really improving,” he said.

Data provided by the department to the Los Angeles County Probation Oversight Commission last week suggests there has been a drop in the number of employees on continuous leaves, but the number of individuals requiring intermittent leaves or light duty assignments has either worsened or stayed flat.

At the same time, the average number of employees calling out at both Los Padrinos and Nidorf similarly remained relatively unchanged from August to December 2023, according to the data.

The department, with assistance from the county’s human resources department, has issued nearly 1,000 informal and formal actions against employees since January 2022 for excessive and unscheduled patterns of absenteeism, according to the data.

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