Did days of solitary confinement replace “Hope” for a group of kids at LA’s largest juvenile hall?
It appears so, according to three Los Angeles County probation commissioners.
On Wednesday, September 27, a trio of commissioners charged with oversight of LA County’s complex probation department visited Central Juvenile Hall, the largest of the county’s three temporary lock-ups for kids. Shortly after they arrived, the threesome encountered a situation that alarmed them.
The commissioners—Jan Levine, Betsy Butler, and Joe Gardner—had come to the facility, which is located slightly north and east of downtown, at the edge of Boyle Heights, to do one of the occasional “inspections” of the county’s various juvenile facilities, which are part of their official duties
According to a memo the commissioners composed after their visit (that WitnessLA obtained), the first stop the three made was at what is known as “The Hope Center,” a set of tiny, spare, concrete cell-like bedrooms surrounding a brightly lit day room, which had replaced the facility’s SHU a little over a year ago, after the LA County Board of supervisors voted to prohibit the use of solitary confinement for the kids in the county’s care, except in circumstances when the safety of the youth or staff was involved, and then only for strictly limited periods.
When the commissioners arrived at the Hope Center, which is situated on an upper floor of a multi-story building on the sprawling and aging juvenile hall campus, according to their report, the unit they saw was very different from the Hope Center that one of the commissioners had seen the previous year.
“I was up there last year when the Hope Center at Central was the…well…the Hope Center, ” said Commissioner Jan Levine, when we spoke later about her recent visit to the unit. “There were all kinds of positive programs going on up there. People were at different tables working with the kids. The furniture was comfortable. When the kids left, they felt better about themselves. They’d accomplished something while they were up there.” But when the threesome went on September 27, all the niceties, she said, were gone.
The commissioners asked about the change, and were told by one of the supervisors on duty, that a “new policy” had been “rolled out.”
The “new” policy at the aspirationally named Hope Center, the commissioners wrote, “very much appears to be the old, now prohibited practice of solitary confinement. The SHU is back.”
(Probation higher-ups have unequivocally disputed the idea of such a redesignation.)
The SHU—a term generally used to describe tiny bedrooms used for “room confinement,” in both adult and juvenile facilities across the nation—stands for Secure Housing Unit.
According to the commissioners, the supervisor they spoke with told them that the Hope Center was a “cool down zone,” with stays there in the neighborhood of two hours.
“Unfortunately, based on what we heard and saw, many stays far exceed two hours,” the commissioners wrote.
Alone in a Room for Days
LA County’s Probation Commission was established in 1905 as an advisory body that, at the moment, has 13 members. It was created to “provide a citizen interface between the Department, the community and the Board of Supervisors, ” and generally is comprised of people who are nominated by one of the members of the board of supervisors for their experience in related fields.
In the case of the commissioners who made the Hope Center visit, Jan Levine is a former Superior Court Judge, who now works in various areas of juvenile justice advocacy; Betsy Butler is a former state legislator, and now the executive director of the California Women’s Law Center; Joe Gardner is a 27-year veteran Santa Monica Police officer, now retired, with experience in gang investigation, youth intervention, and issues related to the county’s homeless population.
According to the September 27 report, as the three commissioners listened to the superintendent, a slight boy who was standing at a narrow window belonging one of the small individual rooms, reportedly began knocking on the heavy plastic window pane, trying to get their attention.
The commissioners interviewed the young man, a 16-year-old (whom we will call Reynold to protect his anonymity) who told them that he’d been in the Hope Center since Sunday night.
And now it was Wednesday.
Reynold said he’d not been to school for three days. The commissioners noted he had three well-worn books in his cell, one of which was in Spanish, “which he doesn’t speak,“ they wrote. The boy had been allowed out of his cell into the dayroom to eat, he said, but only by himself.
The staff told the commissioners that Reynold was part of a “black on brown” fight between nine kids, that had occurred Sunday night in the P unit, one of two housing units for what are known as developmentally disabled kids, although many of the kids reportedly hate the designation.
Reynold was part of the group of kids who had started the fight, four of whom were reportedly placed in the Hope Center so they could cool down.
But that had been three days ago. The commissioners did not meet with the other three kids, but found Reynold to be calm and courteous.
One of the unit staff reportedly told commissioner Jan Levine that Reynold had been calm for some time.
“I’ve taken my consequences, done my time. I’m ready to go back to my unit, back to school,” Reynold said.
The only person who could order Reynold and his co-fighters to be returned to their unit, according to what the commissioners were told, was the supervisor on Unit P, where the fight was.
“Reportedly, this individual comes up to the Hope Center and asks staff how [Reynold] is doing,” the commissioners wrote. Yet it wasn’t clear, according to the commissioners, if the supervisor had talked with Reynold in the Hope Center since the day he sent the boy there.
“There doesn’t seem to be any daily tracking of ‘readiness for release back to unit,” they reported.
There was also no indication, the commissioners wrote, that the Unit P supervisor conferred with Department of Mental Health staff regarding the youth, another supposed requirement of the Hope Center. Absent any other staff intervention, the commissioners reported, they learned that Reynold was scheduled to stay at the Hope Center two more days, until Friday, the 29th,
According to the commissioners, one of the other kids involved in the fight had a similar order. But his release date was scheduled Sunday October 1, meaning kid number two was reportedly scheduled to be kept in the Hope Center for slightly over a week, although no one could explain to the commissioners why this length of time in what amounted solitary confinement was needed after a fight in which none of the kids or staff was injured that occurred three days before.
(WitnessLA has with confirmed that the unit P fighters were all examined by a nurse, post-fight, and there were no injuries.)
After the visit by the commissioners and their subsequent report, however, all the remaining kids from Unit P, who had been involved in the Sunday night fight, were suddenly deemed ready to safely go back to their unit sometime on Wednesday, instead of waiting until Friday, or the next Sunday.
“If a minor is in distress, either with concerns about suicide or aggressiveness” against others, Probation Commissioner Joe Gardner told WitnessLA, “the practice has always been to have a deputy probation officer closely monitoring them and assessing them” while they’re in the Hope Center, “and that was clearly not taking place when we were there.”
Moreover, said Commissioner Jan Levine, “we learned from staff” this kind of multi-day stay “wasn’t the first time.”
Another Fight, Another Group of Kids Kept for Days?
It appears, however, that—as Jan Levine suspected, the P unit kids were not the only youth in Central Juvenile Hall who were kept in the Hope Center for multiple days, at the end of September.
On the evening of Wednesday, September 27, the day that the three commissioners made their visit, we spoke with a long-time staff member at Central who confirmed the commissioners’ account of the P unit kids getting stuck in what amounted to SHU conditions in the Hope Center for multiple days without what our source described as the necessary reassessment.
The veteran Detention Service Officer (DSO), who asked not to be named, said around the time of the P unit fight, there was another fight in another unit, which also resulted in kids going to the Hope Center. This 2nd fight reportedly occurred on Thursday, September 21, in what is known as the KL unit, which houses older boys. According to our source, some of the KL fighters were kept in the Hope Center until at least Monday, meaning they were in isolation for four days.
“None of that should have happened,” said our source.
The Superintendent of Central Juvenile Hall, Dalila Alcantara, confirmed that the KL fight had occurred on Thursday night, but was unsure when those probationers had been allowed to return to their units, and regular activities.
“We want to get to the bottom of this,” said Commissioner Gardner, the long-time police officer, of what they had encountered, “because we want to make sure that the minors in the facilities are not being kept in any kind of solitary condition.”
LA County Does Away With Solitary Confinement
Before we go further, it would likely help review a little recent history on the topic LA County probation and solitary confinement for youth.
On Tuesday, May 4, 2016, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion that, as we mentioned earlier, essentially banned the use of solitary confinement for kids in the county’s juvenile detention facilities.
In “very rare situations when all interventions have been exhausted, a juvenile may be separated from others as a temporary response to behavior that poses a serious or immediate threat of physical harm to any person,” the motion written by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis stipulated.
“Even in such cases, the placement should be brief, designed as a cool down period and done only in consultation with a mental health professional.”
Probation higher-ups and other county officials were further instructed to create policies, procedures, enforcement mechanisms, and a method for “oversight”—presumably by the Probation Commission—for this new protocol
During the pre-vote commentary period, Supervisor Kuehl explained the importance of the motion by pointing to what multiple studies had shown about the practice of juvenile solitary.
“It doesn’t improve behavior,” Kuehl told the crowd in attendance. “It doesn’t secure public safety. It doesn’t promote rehabilitation. And, indeed, those who have experienced solitary confinement recidivate in higher numbers.”
In addition, said Keuhl, “the Office of Juvenile Justice Prevention found that 50 percent of our young people who commit suicide were in room confinement at the time of their suicide. And more than 60 percent of them had a history of punitive solitary confinement.”
Cal Remington, then the interim chief of the probation department after the previous chief, Jerry Powers was asked to resign, acknowledged that staff training would be extremely important to the success of the new plan.
“The staff have to feel safe,” he said. “I just wanted to mention there are challenges with this. But they’re challenges we’re willing to take on. We’ll get there.”
Remington* also described at length the way the environments in which a young person might be placed for any necessary cool down, would be very different than the cell-like environments that had previously been used.
“We want the situation to be a calming experience,” Remington said. He then described new approaches in furniture, lighting, window treatment, and wall colors, as part of the psychological remodeling that those involved deemed important.
“We want a place where the minor and the staff member can sit down and talk comfortably,” Remington told the supervisors and the audience. “It’s important to change the environment. We are talking about cultural change.”
Remington added that at the Challenger youth camp, the kids had been permitted to vote for a name for the repurposed SHU.
“They want to call it HOPE Center,” he said.
The change was to be accomplished in all the juvenile facilities by the end of September 2016, just slightly over a year ago.
And so it was that, what had once been Central Juvenile Hall’s bleak SHU, was redesigned and reopened as The Hope Center, along with similar Hope Centers in the other two juvenile halls, and in the county’s various juvenile probation camps.
In Central Juvenile Hall, as Jan Levine had described, the new Hope Center featured nice pillows in the individual rooms, and comfortable looking chairs and tables in the day room along with activities and programs kids could engage in while they were there, including behavioral incentive programs (“BMP”) that allowed kids to heave the center with certificates honoring their achievements.
Initially, however, there was confusion among staff about the use of the new non-SHU centers, according to John Tuchek, 1st vice president SEIU 721, the probation supervisors union, when we spoke to him about the general issue. “Rumors were abounding,” he said, that “all the doors from the rooms were being removed” in the new units, allowing for no safely restricted cool off time, which was an understandable cause for genuine concern.
Shortly after the Supervisors’ vote, “an assaultive minor stabbed two staff with makeshift daggers that were fashioned by the minor. It was relayed to the union that they were under orders not to lock up the minor, which became an immediate officer safety issue,” Tuchek wrote in a May 2016 column for the Association of Probation Supervisors Newsletter. In an attempt to quell the rumors, in his essay, Tuchek assured the union members that the supervisors meant no such thing. “Please note,” Tuchek wrote, “as it was related to the Unions that we are not precluded from utilizing the most restrictive action, but we must first make the proper assessment and include Mental Health to justify its use.”
A Trip to Central
When I visited Central Juvenile Hall on Sunday, Oct. 1, at the invitation of Chief Deputy Probation Officer, Sheila Mitchell, she told me that the department had initiated an internal affairs investigation “the minute” they heard about the commissioners’ report.
Both Mitchell and LA County Probation Chief Terri McDonald—who inherited a long list of challenges and problems when McDonald took over the department in January 2017—were plainly dismayed by the commissioners’ report of the long stays by kids in Central’s Hope Center.
“We have been clear that we will not tolerate abuse or indifference,” McDonald replied in an email when I contacted her. They were still gathering facts, she wrote, and needed also to “reevaluate our policies and re-evaluate the training provided to our staff.” But all that had begun “immediately” when they “learned of the allegation.”
McDonald said that the department will “correct any policy or training issues as well as address any employee concerns that we encounter.” This includes “how to ensure the safety and security of the youth and employees, she said.
“We will not backslide and will resolve this issue.”
Sheila Mitchell, McDonald’s second in command, was equally emphatic when I met with her and Dave Mitchell, Chief of the Residential Treatment Services Bureau, plus Dalila Alcantara, who is Central Juvenile Hall’s Superintendent—in other words, the head of the place. None of the three could comment extensively what had seemingly occurred with the P unit kids, as they were waiting for the results of the investigation, they said, but all three expressed genuine concern.
They also explained that due to the highly fluid and, in many cases, high-risk nature of the population in the county’s three juvenile halls—Central in particular—fights were not uncommon. And Sheila Mitchell acknowledged that the juvenile halls would benefit from additional training, which would occur in the month of October.
“We feel we’ve done a really good job in our camps in training our staff in a very different way to de-escalate these situations,” she said, along with “how to deal with aggression, and how to address kids who are highly traumatized.”
And trauma is a big issue. According to a just-released report, Mitchell said, eighty-five percent of the kids in LA County’s juvenile probation system have been involved in the child welfare system, or were investigated at some time. (WLA wrote about that report here.)
Getting back to the matter at hand, Dave Mitchell said that, in the three halls, which fall under Detention Services Bureau or (DSB), the average stay is three hours in the various Hope Centers.
“But there are occasions when kids’ readiness is assessed, and they may need to stay longer.” And that’s what happened with the kids from P unit fight, Mitchell said.
“But if that happens,” he continued, “we have to justify it and put it on what is called an SSP— a Specialized Supervision Plan.” An SSP is determined in conjunction with someone from the Department of Mental Health, Dave Mitchell said. Moreover, an SSP can only be determined after a kid has already been in the center for four hours.
Even with an SSP, “the kids are supposed to be assessed every two hours,” added Alcantara.
Both Alcantara and Mitchell described a number of examples of when an SSP would be called for regarding a youth’s well being, or the safety of other youth or staff.
But these are the exceptions, they said.
Misuse of the SSP?
So what happened with P unit kids? Were they properly evaluated? Was the requisite representative from the Department of Mental Health (DMH) involved?
And what about the KL kids whom nobody seemed to know about until we brought that matter up? These are the kids who went in on Thursday after a fight, who may have been at the Hope Center even longer than the P unit kids. What about them? How many were there? Were they on an SSP? If so, why? And why so long?
Furthermore, what was done during the multiple days that the various kids spent in the Hope Center to help each boy understand and handle his anger and impulses, and to make better choices next time?
There is nothing whatsoever in the research on troubled kids indicating that simply putting a kid in a tiny room alone with nothing to do for days, without any positive intervention, is a useful strategy. So how many times were the P unit or the KL kids checked on? What did the checking consist of? What was written on the SSPs that called for four-day-long stays—stays which, for one or more boys, could have stretched as long as a week had the commissioners not showed up and started asking questions?
A recently retired Detention Services Officer who worked at Central, and at one time supervised the facility’s SHU, said that, when he was still working at “the hall,” the SSPs were often “used as an excuse” to keep kids in the SHU for longer periods, even though, he said, kids should only be kept “if they are a threat to their own or someone else’s safety.”
The retiree told us that, according to friends he speaks with who are still working at Central, the same reported misuse of the designation is still going on—although the higher-ups likely don’t know about it, he said.
Our source who is still working inside Central told a similar story. The KL kids who had gone in on Thursday, remained over the weekend, our source said, mostly because no one bothered to reassess them, and the staff member who had signed the order for them to stay past four hours “dropped the ball.”
The source believed the situation with the P unit kids had been similar.
California Takes on Solitary Confinement
A little under five months after the LA Supervisors voted to restrict juvenile solitary in the county, the state of California passed its own restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for kids in the form of SB 1143, authored by Senator Mark Leno. On September 27, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1143 into law.
The new state regulations that are set to kick in on January 1, 2018, are very similar to the guidelines that the LA County Board of Supes passed in May 2016.
In brief, SB 1143 states the that “room confinement” should not be used for a youth “before other less restrictive options have been attempted and exhausted, unless attempting those options poses a threat to the safety or security of any minor, ward, or staff.” And that room confinement “shall not be used for the purposes of punishment, coercion, convenience, or retaliation by staff.”
A minor may be held for four hours in “room confinement,” but after that he or she had to be returned to general population, or staff should consult with mental health staff and, if there is a reason for the youth to stay longer, staff must create “an individualized plan that includes the goals and objectives to be met in order to reintegrate the minor or ward to general population.” An approval must then be obtained every four hours thereafter that the young person is still kept in room confinement, along with the reasoning behind the decision.
(Here you can read SB 1143 for yourself.)
Chairs, Tables & Cushions
On Sunday, October 1, after the meeting with Chiefs Sheila Mitchell and Dave Mitchell, and Central Juvenile Hall head woman, Dalila Alcantara, we walked over to the Hope Center so I could see the place for myself.
As the commissioners had previously described it, the facility consisted of a rectangle shaped day room that featured a couple of bolted down metal picnic tables, but little else. Small, cell-like rooms lined the walls of the dayroom.
Indeed, there was no sign of the comfortable chairs and tables, and cheery certificates that once lined the walls honoring kids achievements, and making the Hope Center a more welcoming place.
I asked a staff member what had happened to the nice furniture, and the colorful pillows that used to be inside the individual room/cells. Now the pillows and any other softening elements were gone.
The staffer said she knew of no furniture or pillows. So where did kids sit when they were allowed to watch television? I asked.
Furniture was going to be ordered in the future, I was told, but she knew of no furniture being removed.
As it happened, I had previously obtained photos taken at the Hope Center in 2016, back when it still had the pleasant furniture, pillows, and the kids’ achievement certificates. I had the photos on my phone and offered to pass them around to the various officials, who said right away that they wanted to see them.
I passed the phone first to Chief Sheila Mitchell who peered carefully at the photos.
“That is nice furniture,” she said when she looked up. “Where is that furniture now?”
No one seemed to know.
“The building still says Hope Center,” Commissioner Levine told me, “but…it’s changed.”
The Hope Center photo at the top of the story was taken in June 2016, when Central Juvenile Hall’s Hope Center was first created, and decorated with welcoming furniture and other items, many of which have now been removed.