The California Board of State and Community Corrections is giving Los Angeles County 10 weeks to improve conditions at its two juvenile halls.
Nine months after the state sued Los Angeles County over conditions for incarcerated youth, a California regulatory agency has determined that the county’s juvenile halls are “presently unsuitable for the confinement of minors.”
The determination is a first for the California Board of State and Community Corrections, and follows a unanimous Thursday vote by its members.
Now, L.A. County has roughly 10 weeks to correct basic health and safety violations highlighted by the board — everything from a lack of adequate health care to improper use of isolation and physical restraints. The stakes are high. If it fails to comply, the county will be forced to shutter its two juvenile halls and move more than 300 teenagers to other nearby facilities.
“It has seemed for many years that Los Angeles County either did not fix the issues in the many lawsuits and investigations, or that things did not stay fixed,” said attorney Sue Burrell, a director of policy and training at the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center.
Burrell said given the board’s decisive action Thursday, that may soon change: “Maybe the threat of closure has finally gotten their attention.”
Members of the California board that oversees conditions inside adult and juvenile detention facilities statewide voted to sanction the county after inspections earlier this year revealed persistent problems at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar and the Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights.
Eden Madrid, a youth advocate and community organizer with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, urged the board to vote for greater scrutiny of the facilities, calling the two years he spent at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall the “darkest moments” of his 14 total years of incarceration. He said he was “treated like an animal,” and sometimes locked in handcuffs and leg restraints for as long as 18 hours a day.
“You have a duty to our youth in L.A. to not give promises, but action, and show the kids that you care,” he told board members. “You can’t give Probation a free pass.”
A memo released Thursday on the oversight agency’s website stated that L.A. County was out of compliance with basic safety standards — as recently as two days prior. Problems included failing to ensure that young people receive adequate health care, failing to monitor psychotropic medications and failing to follow rules about how long to confine teenagers alone in their rooms. Staff were also found to be improperly deploying physical restraints.
Probation Department spokesperson Karla Tovar said probation officials were working with other county departments to rectify the problematic conditions identified by the Board of State and Community Corrections.
“The Department remains committed to providing custody, care, and therapeutic services that help transform our clients’ lives,” Tovar wrote in a statement to The Imprint.
The Probation Department’s failures stand in stark contrast with a vision for county juvenile detention enshrined just a day earlier by the county Board of Supervisors.At a regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday, supervisors called for even more compassionate care at its juvenile detention facilities, including greater outdoor garden space, mentors and restorative justice circles.
But it’s clear the halls still have not met the minimum standard of care, according to what the Board of State and Community Corrections has found.
The state board is tasked with inspecting each of the state’s 86 county-run juvenile halls, camps and ranches once every two years. The agency ensures that detention facilities meet the state’s minimum standards for safety, programming, nutrition and services delivered under government care.
Los Angeles County probation officials have been under scrutiny — and on notice by state officials — since inspections in February and policy reviews earlier this year found numerous deficiencies.
A 60-day clock for L.A. County to make changes won’t officially start until October, when board chair Linda Penner said an official letter will be sent to L.A. County leaders. Starting in October the Board of State and Community Corrections will have staff on site at the halls to make sure the facilities are compliant, she said. The board will reinspect the juvenile halls before the end of timeline and make another determination of suitability at its next meeting on Nov. 18.
Calling the process “uncharted waters,” Penner said that since its creation nine years ago, the board has never before declared a juvenile institution “unsuitable.” In 2013, the determination was considered, but not pursued, for Alameda County’s Camp Wilmont Sweeney.
L.A. County’s juvenile halls have also been under scrutiny by the California Department of Justice, which concluded an investigation into conditions of confinement in the detention centers in January. That state authority found staff used excessive force, lacked appropriate training, inappropriately confined youth in isolation and did not provide adequate medical and mental health care, among other issues.
“Youth have resorted to saving milk cartons to use in the middle of the night” when they were not allowed to leave their cells to urinate, according to a complaint filed Jan. 13 in Superior Court. The Justice Department investigation also noted that an asthmatic teen was denied an inhaler for 45 minutes after being pepper sprayed. Other confined youth were doused with chemicals several times a day.
As a result of the probe, L.A. County entered into a settlement agreement with the state that includes four years of court supervision. The county is also spending millions to improve medical and mental health services at the facilities, which serve those ages 12 to 17 who are awaiting trial or have violated the terms of their probation.
History is repeating itself. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice also launched an investigation of the sprawling county’s juvenile halls, concluding that conditions of confinement and practices deployed at the detention facilities violated the constitutional rights of young people. At that time, the problems were similar — a lack of medical and mental health care, overuse of chemical agents, insufficient protection from harm and inadequate rehabilitative services.
That investigation resulted in a settlement with the county in 2004, and court oversight that lasted until 2015.
At the Board of State and Community Corrections meeting Thursday, roughly a dozen youth advocates shared the harmful toll of incarceration in L.A.’s troubled facilities and called for increased oversight of the juvenile halls.
After the vote to declare L.A. County's juvenile halls “unsuitable,” board member Scott Budnick said that despite years of failing to correct conditions inside its juvenile detention facilities, L.A. County had not taken the agency's inspections seriously.
Budnick also expressed confidence in the leadership of Probation Chief Adolfo Gonzalez. He said the chief, who was appointed in January, will be able to convince probation staff to adopt the urgent reforms needed to improve conditions. The possibility of closure could convince even the most resistant to change, he added.
“Sometimes doing the right thing for kids doesn't motivate everyone,” Budnick said in a statement read to the board, “and for those that it doesn't, hopefully the potential loss of a job will.”