Last Thursday, February 9, the members of the California Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) were presented with a report showing that Los Angeles County Probation’s two youth lock-ups — Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall and Central Juvenile Hall — were once again extravagantly out of compliance when it comes to basic standards of care for the kids in residence at the two facilities.
Central Juvenile Hall, located north/east of downtown LA, is out of compliance in 20 categories, while Barry J Nidorf Juvenile Hall, is out of compliance in 19 categories, for a total of 39 areas in which the two facilities are not hitting the most fundamental marks when it comes to keeping the kids in their care safe.
Many of the areas of non-compliance are basically a form of neglect.
For example, the BSCC inspectors noted that the youth at both facilities were not consistently getting time outdoors every day. Neither was an hour of exercise consistently provided, indoor or out, although an hour of some kind of rigorous activity is the bare minimum required by the state for kids residing in any youth facility in California.
At Central Juvenile Hall, “rehabilitation” programs are not consistently offered. At Barry J—as the Sylmar-located facility is known for short—the place lacks “suitable age-appropriate activities to promote positive behavior.”
The list goes on from there.
At both halls, the examiners wrote, when kids act out, the staff members are hampered by the fact that they are not trained in “current use of force policy.” Nor are they trained in “decontamination techniques,” which presumably refers to the decontamination necessary after kids are sprayed with pepper spray. In that same vein, according to the report, kids are being isolated in their rooms “beyond what is allowable.”
(California state law prohibits minors in juvenile detention facilities to be held in ‘room confinement” for more than four hours, absent special circumstances.)
There’s lots more. For instance, at Barry J when a kid or a unit full of kids is unable to attend school classes for some reason or another, the youth affected are given “packets,” in the place of in-person instruction, but the packets “do not meet the instructional minimums.”
(How hard can it be to have on hand a variety of packets that meet the instructional minimums. And what does a consistent dearth of basic educational supplies communicate to the kids receiving these useless packets?)
Other areas of non-compliance potentially compromised the kids’ safety, such as the reported habit of some staff members to spend lengthy periods of on duty time in a locked office, away from the kids.
At both Barry J. and Central, the examiners noted that the kids’ living units should not be “divided in a way that hinders direct access, supervision, immediate intervention or other actions.”
In other words, staff must be able to intervene if there is an emergent need.
Also, at both facilities, the rule is that there must always be at least one staff member present in the unit “when a youth is present,” whether in their room, or not. It turned out, however, while there were staff members who were technically present, “they were often in the office behind a closed and locked door,” when the kids were locked in their rooms.
This is a problem, according to the examiners, because when staff members have retreated behind the locked office door, kids don’t have a functional and dependable way in which to call for help.
In the same vein, at Central Juvenile Hall the required regular safety checks were “not being documented,” according to “regulation and policy.” And in many cases they weren’t performed at all.
In the cases in which the mandated checks were performed and documented, when the examiners looked at videos of what was going on in the unit during the purported checks, the videos did “not correspond with written documentation.”
Matters were not helped by the fact that safety checks and other forms of supervision were further compromised at both Central and Barry J by the fact that the required 144 square inch “view panel,” a window that allowed staff to supervise kids when they were in their rooms, was in many cases rendered useless.
Specifically, according to the BSCC report, the view through those windows is often obscured by the smearing of toothpaste, Vaseline, or some related substance to the degree that quick safety checks were rendered impossible. (As WitnessLA reported previously, the matter of the occluded windows was also documented in a recent report by members of LA County’s Probation Oversight Commission, as shown in the photo below.)
Oh, and did we mention that neither facility had received their 2022 Fire Inspection clearances?
(In case that seems like a minor matter, here’s what happened the last time staff members at Barry J were not appropriately trained and otherwise prepared for a wildfire.)
The list goes on for a total 39 inexplicable failures to meet minimum standards—some of those failures more critical than others.
So what to do?
The purpose of the BSCC
The BSCC, for those unfamiliar, is an independent agency created by state law to provide “leadership to the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems.”
The BSCC also has significant powers given it by state law. With those powers in mind, one of its main jobs is to inspect the various counties’ adult and juvenile detention facilities to make sure they are in compliance with California’s legal standards. And, if they are not in compliance, to lower the necessary boom.
This means —at the most extreme end of the oversight spectrum—the board must shut a facility down if that facility repeatedly fails to hit the necessary legal marks for the safety and wellbeing of those in residence.
In the case at hand, this means that if LA County cannot bring its two youth lock-ups into compliance with state mandated rules within a certain designated period, the BSCC will have no choice but to declare the two facilities,“unsuitable for youth habitation.”
In other words, Central Juvenile Hall and Barry J Nidorf would be deemed unsafe places for kids to be living. Period, full stop.
If that occurs, the county would have 60 additional days to move all the kids in residence at the two facilities somewhere else.
Where that “somewhere else” might be would be LA County’s problem to solve.
Last Thursday, when LA County Probation’s two lists of non-compliance were presented, although the county still has several months to rectify things, the members of the BSCC board looked grim as they contemplated the multiplicity of ways the two LA facilities were failing the kids in their care.
In observing the board’s reaction, it is important to note that the 13-member BSCC board is not made up of pearl-clutching alarmists.
The Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is on the BSCC Board. As is the director of the state’s Adult Parole Operations. The board also features two working county sheriffs, a chief of police, two probation chiefs of two different California counties, a county supervisor, and three justice advocates. Finally, there is the board chair, Linda Penner, who among her past positions, served as the president of the California Probation Officers Association.
Fifty-six of California’s counties “are in compliance,” said film producer and board member Scott Budnick, to his fellow board members after last week’s presentation.
Budnick is a longtime youth justice advocate, and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. He also is able to speak with authority on the day’s issue as he is in and out of Barry J Nidorf Juvenile Hall as a volunteer almost weekly.
Only two counties are out of compliance, Los Angeles and Riverside, Budnick said to the group. And LA in particular, he said, is in “a continuous cycle” of falling in and out of compliance.
“So the question now is, what if Chief Gonzales is not able to run his department?”
No one replied.
In asking this question, Budnick was referring to Dr. Adolfo Gonzales, LA County Probation’s well-liked reformist chief, who took the helm of the chronically troubled agency two years ago on February 1, 2021, after serving successfully as the head of San Diego County Probation.
“I mean we learned last time that only 11 percent of the staff are coming to work,” Budnick continued, referring to Chief Gonzales’ admission at a BSCC meeting that took place a few months ago. At that time, the chief confessed that only a small fraction of his work force was showing up for duty at the two juvenile halls.
Budnick repeated the startling number. “Eleven percent!”
So of course there’s non-compliance, he said.
Budnick said he knew many of the 11 percent who are actually showing up for work, “because I see them every Saturday. And they’re incredible people.”
Yet, those who do show up end up working double shifts, Budnick said, instead of going home to their families.
But, despite the double shifts, the 80-something kids in the section of Barry J known as the Secure Youth Treatment Facility, often cannot get the classes and activities they need due to the chronic staff shortages.
“So, because there’s not enough staff, they are sitting around playing video games from 6 a.m. ‘till 8 p.m.”
Budnick described one unit of kids he visits that “haven’t had any outdoor recreation for two months, because of a lack of staffing.”
To make sure nobody missed the point, he repeated the words for emphasis. “Two months!”
Budnick described another group of 60 or so kids at the facility who are in college. “And they’re incredible.” But a lot of times, he said, “there aren’t enough staff to take them to their classes.”
He also told the group about a young man who he said, in the course of one week, “beat up a teacher, stabbed someone in the face, and beat up a volunteer. And, every time he was just put back into his unit.”
This too was due to the lack of staffing, according to Budnick.
“There wasn’t enough staff to open up another unit.”
(WLA has not yet independently corroborated this last story.)
When Budnick finished speaking, board chair Linda Penner stated what everyone else appeared to be thinking, which was, while the board understood that LA County Probation is dealing with difficult issues, such as not having enough staff, “we cannot let them stay open because of those difficult issues,” said Penner.
“If they’re not protecting the young people in their care and custody, if they’re not adhering with the minimum regulations, the obligation is for this board to say, ‘You no longer can incarcerate children in LA County’s juvenile halls.’”
LA’s previous out-of-compliance calamity
Last Thursday wasn’t the first time the BSCC found itself facing the very real possibility of shutting down LA County’s juvenile halls.
As WitnessLA reported previously,in mid-September of 2021, the BSCC voted unanimously to find Barry J and Central “unsuitable for youth habitation.”
But, at the last minute, before the two facilities were actually shuttered, the county managed to yank Central and Barry J back from the brink to the degree that the shut down was avoided.
Then a year ago, Central Juvenile Hall again came very close to the designation of “unsuitable for youth habitation.” But, again, it managed to dodge the metaphorical bullet.
Now, with this latest occurance of non-compliance, the county has until April of this year to tell the BSCC exactly how and when they will bring the two facilities back into compliance.
After that, LA County has until June to keep the new promises it will presumably make in April. If it can’t hit the marks, the BSCC must designate the facilities unsuitable.
Yet, even if LA can manage to dodge a shut down one more time, practically speaking this means that, in the last three years, the youth in residence at the halls have arguably been living in environments that, were they private family residences would cause the county’s Department of Children and Family Services to step in and remove the kids to the care of LA County.
But of course, the kids in question are already in LA County’s care.
The problems the BSCC did not discuss
While these 39 areas of noncompliance at LA County’s two juvenile halls are disturbing, they are reportedly not the worst of the county’s problems with its two juvenile halls, and its youth camps.
This past Saturday, the LA Times published a story about a seventeen year old boy, identified by his first name of Beckham, who in October 2020 was held down by four staff members at Campus Kilpatrick, the probation camp located in the Santa Monica Mountains above Point Dume and northwest of Malibu. The story was accompanied by a video of the 125 lb. boy being piled upon by the adults. Then, approximately a minute into the video, when Beckham appears to have been subdued, a supervisor named Oscar Cross appears to grab the young man’s legs and bent them up toward his head, as Beckham screams and calls out for his mother.
Beckham was reportedly not badly injured, but the traumatic nature of the incident for the boy is extremely unsettling.
Supervisor Cross was evidently disciplined but not fired for his , a decision that was reportedly made by Chief Gonzales, according to the LAT.
On Tuesday, February 14, several youth advocacy organizations, including the Youth Justice Coalition, called for the resignation of Chief Gonzales and his chief deputy, Karen Fletcher, for their failure to fire the supervisor who allegedly assaulted the seventeen-year–old
Unfortunately, as disturbing as the newly reported 2020 incident is, it is far from the worst recent allegation of abuse of kids in residence at LA County’s youth probation facilities.
In the coming weeks WitnessLA will bring you other stories, one of which took place in 2021, the other in 2022. These two cases point to physical harm done to two different kids, both of whom were, at the time, in residence at Barry J. Juvenile Hall.
So, watch this space.