On Tuesday afternoon, May 23, the members of The California Board of State and Community Corrections of BSCC voted unanimously to legally declare LA County Probation’s two main youth lock-ups “unsuitable” for habitation by kids or young adults.
The two facilities, Barry J Nidorf Juvenile Hall and Central Juvenile Hall, had been dodging the specter of this vote for at least two years.
But on Tuesday, the grim-faced members of the state oversight board voted that Barry J and Central, as they are called for efficiency’s sake, were not safe places for the youth and young adults in the county’s care.
Yet, there’s a catch. However, we’ll get to that part of the story in a minute.
Of late, the two facilities have not turned out to be particularly safe for anybody, a fact that was demonstrated on two recent occasions earlier this year when two staff members, and a kid, were stabbed in three separate incidents, each of which easily could have been fatal, although in each case, the victims survived.
Yet, the fact that, two weeks prior to Tuesday’s meeting, an 18-year-old boy died of a fentanyl overdose at Barry J, seemed to clarify the unsuitable issue irrevocably for most board members.
Representatives of the county make a plea
Yet, although most present at the meeting or watching it virtually, knew the unsuitable vote was likely coming, in practical terms, there was the question of where LA County could relocate the present residents of the two facilities, and how long that relocation would take.
With these questions in mind, LA County’s Probation’s new interim chief, Guillermo Viera Rosa—the third chief in an many months—along with the County CEO’s office, hoped that they, or more accurately their representatives, could persuade the board to give the county a little more time to put an exit plan in place.
Viera Rosa was not himself present at the BSCC meeting, as immediately prior to his hiring in Los Angeles, he’d been a member of the state board, thus his absence on Tuesday.
In his place, he sent what he described as “a special team of experts,” who delivered a visual-heavy presentation in the hope that the BSCC members would give the county a total of five months, before probation must remove the nearly 300 non-disposition youth from the two “unsuitable” halls, which meant three months more than the 60 days that the BSCC intended to allocate.
The idea, said the LA delegation, was to use the extra time to put into place a $28 million reform plan approved by the County Board of Supervisors on May 2, (which WLA wrote about here).
In their pitch for more time, the LA group explained that probation intends to move most of the kids residing in Barry J and Central to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall located in Downey, a facility that has been shuttered since 2019, save for a few instances of short term usage of a small portion of the structure.
This means that, before the Los Padrinos campus can appropriately house its new residents, it reportedly needs renovation and a bunch of repairs—such as making sure, the team of experts explained, that all the locks to the doors of the cells in which the youth will reside, are capable of actually staying locked. (WLA’s sources inside probation, and also parents and advocates of kids, describe incidents of youth popping open locked cell doors, either to jump other youth or to engage in a variety of problematic activities.)
The county representatives described the kind of renovating, planning, hiring, training, and other prep that was needed to allow Viera Rosa and company to create “opportunities to heal and thrive,” for the youth in residence.
Hence the request for the extra three months.
When the group had completed its presentation, the BSCC board members thanked the LA contingent, but said they felt they needed to go ahead with the unsuitable designation, including its 60-day deadline.
“I just wish this could have happened a year ago,” said one board member.
“Every extension has been made,” said a different board member. “We have not found another county in this same situation.”
Kirk Haynes, the Chief Probation Officer of Fresno County, agreed. “We’ve been trying to get LA County into compliance since January of last year,” he said. “Now we need to make sure that Barry J and Central are found unsuitable.”
It cannot have helped that, this year alone, the board has listened to an array of explanations and excuses from three different probation chiefs and/or their representatives. First there was former Chief Adolfo Gonzales, then interim Chief Karen Fletcher. And now there was this threesome of experts sent by interim Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa, two of whom were part of the state’s efforts to reform the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), the troubled system that will be permanently closed next month.
Board member Norma Cumpian, who is the director of the woman’s program for the AntiRecidivism Coalition, spoke slowly when it was her turn to give her opinion.
“I’ve been struggling since Bryan Diaz passed away,” she said, referring to the 18-year-old who was discovered dead of a drug overdose early in the morning, on Tuesday, May 9.
“He was found on the floor of his cell, and he was cold.”
Yet, she too, said she was clear on the necessity of going ahead with the vote, with no time extensions.
After Cumpian, a few more board members spoke, and the vote was taken. It was unanimous. LA’s youth halls were declared unsuitable. And that was that.
Or nearly so.
Two out of the BSCC board members recused themselves from voting, because they felt they were too close to the situation.
One of those who recused was Angeles Zaragoza, of the LA County Alternate Public Defender’s Office, who represents a large number of the youth coming back to Los Angeles from the state’s youth prison system (DJJ), which will be fully shuttered in June.
The other was Scott Budnick, a justice advocate and film producer who is the founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC).
Now that the vote was finished, Budnick asked to speak.
“It was very difficult for me to recuse, because I’m in these juvenile halls every week,” he told his fellow board members.
“Bryan Diaz was my mentee,” said Budnick. “He was an incredible young man. He was on a real path of change, working hard to get from Barry J. Nidorf to Camp Kilpatrick.
(Kilpatrick is LA County’s model youth camp, located north of Malibu, in the Santa Monica Mountains. )
“We talked about it every day I was there.”
It was very hard, Budnick said, to see a “coroner’s van come into the facility. And to see my mentees body removed sixteen hours later. It was a day I hope I’ll never have to repeat.”
Bryan’s body was found at 8:30 a.m., Budnick said.
“And when I walked in at 9:15 a.m., his brother/best friend, who was in the same unit, was out in the field outside the compound crying uncontrollably. ”
Budnick described walking out to comfort the grief-stricken young man, and seeing there were already three to four staff members into whose arms the kid had collapsed.
“They were hugging him the entire time,” Budnick said. “These are three or four of the staff members who are there every day. One of them has not called out for two years,”
Calling out, for those unfamiliar, means calling work to say you’re not coming in.
“They are there…often working 24 hour shifts because other staff are not coming to work.”
According to Budnick, despite the devotion of these overworked staff members, he knows of a kid who hasn’t been to his college classes in three months, because of the lack of staff. Hedescribed other kids who haven’t been to their high school classes for the same period. Most had no recreation in a like period, according to Budnick.
Instead they play video games, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., he said. And do drugs when they can manage to get them, which reportedly isn’t that hard.
“And the management of this department allowed this to happen.”
Budnick went on to say that, in recent months, he sent “at least ten emails to county probation’s leadership,” telling higher ups that they must, “…do something now or someone’s going to die in Unit X.”
And of course someone did. On Thursday, May 9.
(WitnessLA has spoken with others who regularly spend time at Barry J, such as ARC president Sam Lewis, who told us that they’d personally sent similar warnings, although they didn’t limit the warnings to Unit X.
He was behind the new chief, Budnick said finally.
“Because we have to get this right. Or there’s going to be another Bryan Diaz. There could be another Bryan Diaz any day now.”
The SYTF cohort
As it happens, Tuesday’s vote doesn’t appear to cure that danger.
There is one group of residents at Barry J, who are not yet on the list of youth who are to be moved out of the toxic and potentially deadly confines of Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, within the-60 day deadline that Tuesday’s vote mandates.
These are the approximately 83 kids and young adults who are housed in the units at Barry J that comprise an area designated as the Secure Youth Track Facility or SYTF.
These are the youth people who, in past years, would have been sent to the violence-plagued state facilities which, as mentioned above, will be permanently shuttered by June 30, of this year.
Unit X, where Bryan Diaz died, is part of SYTF. As are some of the other units, where at least one stabbing and multiple non-fatal overdoses occurred in recent months.
Yet, even though, Barry J is now deemed “unsuitable,” according to the BSCC, SYTF youth may have to remain in the Sylmar facility, because the state oversight commission reportedly doesn’t have legal jurisdiction over former DJJ youth
According to BSCC Chair Linda Penner, Gov. Gavin Newsom is fully aware of the issue, and is working to move oversight of the SYTF cohort under the BSCC’s umbrella as he wraps up his final budget process.
But, when such a change might occur is unclear.
More as we know it.