LA County has two juvenile halls: Central Juvenile Hall east of downtown and the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. Together they hold 370 incarcerated young people. While this population has decreased dramatically in the last few years as California rethinks juvenile justice, those who remain behind bars face dire conditions.
As an increasing number of probation officers refuse to come to work, LA’s juvenile halls have become more violent. LA Times crime reporter James Queally describes a recent incident that captures the chaos.
“You simply do not have enough officers in Central and in Sylmar to properly just affect day-to-day care of young people. … There are not enough officers for schooling. There are not enough officers for recreational activities.”
In response to the disorder, incarcerated youth are subject to longer and more consistent lockdowns and often denied opportunities for school, recreation, and even visitation with parents and attorneys.
In his reporting, Queally talked to “one kid who … described being held in about five different lockdowns … just stuck in a box all day, not able to communicate with anybody not able to really do anything of meaning and … sometimes not able to get access to a bathroom at expedient times. … He didn't feel like he was being treated like a human being while in juvenile custody in LA County.”
Inmates and officers alike are suffering injuries from frequent fights, and officer use of force and pepper spray on inmates has increased dramatically. Many officers and inmates fear for their safety.
“They are legitimately afraid … officers [are] suffering broken bones. … The concerns about manpower and about physical disparity between some of the officers in the youths are very real.”
The LA County Probation Department, which oversees the juvenile halls, claims they need more resources to hire more officers. However, Queally and others have noted that much of the department's existing budget is being spent on payroll for officers that aren’t coming to work.
“The issue, by and large, is not staff vacancies. … The main frustration by everything I can look at is that officers who are on the payroll are not showing up.”
Advocates, defense attorneys, and incarcerated youth blame the deteriorating situation on excessive isolation.
“You have kids just fed up. … They're not getting out of small areas. And when they do, tempers flare and fights are quick to happen.”
With no agreed-upon solution in sight, the situation is poised to get worse as the State of California shuts down its juvenile detention centers and transfers more inmates to county facilities.
“We're probably talking about less than 50, less than 60 kids, but those people will be coming back to the juvenile halls that are already in disarray with the current population.”
LA County claims to be working towards a care-based model for juvenile rehabilitation that provides therapeutic care in “home-like settings.” However, Queally notes that details about the program have been slight.
“I don't honestly understand what that is. It hasn't been well explained.”