Detained youth in Los Angeles County have been locked in cells for days, left to wear dirty clothing and fed food with bugs in it, according to testimony in a report released today by a local oversight group.
The newly formed Probation Oversight Commission described abysmal conditions at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, including punishments for fighting that included spending as long as a week in lockdown. Young people in a portion of the facility reserved for those with mental health issues said they’d been locked in their cells for 23 hours a day.
Representatives from the oversight body visited the county’s two juvenile halls and six camps last fall, interviewing staff and youth about their experiences. The most disturbing issues were found at Barry J. Nidorf, already the subject of multiple state investigations and findings of unsafe conditions.
Recent allegations came from girls and young women at the juvenile hall who said they were not provided with adequate feminine hygiene products. “During menstruation periods, whether because of the type of underwear given or other reasons, when blood leaks and runs down their legs, they are not allowed to clean themselves by showering until nighttime,” the report reads.
Detained youth also reported that they consistently found bugs in their food, they had little privacy when speaking with their attorneys, and some staff failed to wear masks. Some said they were regularly shackled while within the facility, with little to do inside their cells aside from drawing in coloring books and playing cards.
Edith Macias, advocacy coordinator for the Long Beach-based Arts for Healing and Justice Network, decried the report’s findings as an “absolute disgust” at a meeting of county justice officials on Wednesday.
“It was disturbing to learn the many ways in which youth at Barry J. Nidorf are literally living a nightmare every day they are locked up,” Macias said. “There seems to be a fear and disregard for the humanity of these youth by probation and county.”
Several probation officers disputed the veracity of the report.
“We have heard these rumors and we do not believe these reports to be accurate,” wrote Hans Liang, president of the union that represents L.A. County deputy probation officers, in an emailed statement. “Neither Department policies nor our own professional ethics allow this behavior. Further, monitoring devices, specifically cameras, have apparently not captured any evidence showing these reports to be factual.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she is taking the findings of the report and any allegations of youth mistreatment seriously.
“I expect swift implementation of appropriate corrective measures,” Barger said in a statement. “Our youth deserve nothing less than safe, rehabilitative and humane conditions in our County’s juvenile halls and camps.”
The Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall has repeatedly been under scrutiny over the past year. In January 2021, L.A. County agreed to a settlement with the California Department of Justice, following an investigation into the poor conditions of confinement in local detention centers. The probe found widespread concerns, including the staff’s excessive use of force and inadequate training, a lack of medical and mental health care, and the inappropriate isolation of youth. As a result of the court settlement, the county is subject to at least four years of court supervision.
Issues at the county’s juvenile halls surfaced again last year, when the state agency charged with overseeing all detention facilities found repeated examples of basic health and safety violations and the improper use of physical restraints.
Then, last September, the Board of State and Community Corrections declared L.A. County’s two juvenile halls — Barry J. Nidorf and Central — to be “unsuitable for the confinement of minors,” an unprecedented announcement that could have led to a state shutdown.
L.A. County youth ages 12 to 17 are temporarily held at the two facilities after being arrested while awaiting court rulings or a subsequent placement after their case has been resolved. After state reforms, juvenile halls are now being used for young adults up to age 25 in some cases.
While the county made progress during further inspections, averting their closure, Milinda Kakani of the Children’s Defense Fund said conditions remain unacceptable.
“If these were my children, DCFS would have been knocking on my door yesterday and they would have been put in foster care,” Kakani said at Wednesday’s meeting.
Conditions at the Sylmar juvenile hall face heightened scrutiny at a time when justice advocates, county residents and probation unions have battled over where to send youthful offenders found to have committed the most serious and violent offenses. In July, the state’s youth prison system began its historic phasing-out, by halting new intakes and launching the eventual return of all juvenile offenders back to their home communities and local detention centers. Flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in new state funding, county probation departments must now provide young adults serving longer sentences with therapeutic services and living space within
Los Angeles County initially decided to hold youth — who in the past would have been sent to state prisons — at Campus Kilpatrick in Malibu, while retrofitting two vacant juvenile detention camps in Santa Clarita. But that plan was scrapped after a public outcry over safety concerns. As a result, 15 young people are being held at Barry J. Nidorf, while residents, advocates and probation officers wait for county leaders to come up with a setting that lives up to the state’s new therapeutic standards.
While L.A. County’s probation unions have raised staffing concerns about previous county plans, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl — whose district includes the Sylmar juvenile hall — said the recent report confirms that the facility should not be used as a long-term placement for youthful offenders.
“This report, based on on-the-ground facility inspections, shines an honest light on conditions that require fixing at Barry J. Nidorf,” Kuehl said in a statement emailed to The Imprint. “Campus Kilpatrick is the gold standard for our entire system. That’s why I and other Supervisors as well as the commission tasked with making recommendations on this matter have been insisting that our young people with the highest needs should be housed at Campus Kilpatrick.”