Los Angeles County's ambitious, multibillion-dollar drive to upgrade jails and detention centers is leaving behind a dilapidated, 100-year-old lockup for juveniles east of downtown.
The county is planning to spend $2 billion to rebuild the Men's Central Jail and and to replace the overcrowded women's jail in Lynwood with a new one in Lancaster. In the hills above Malibu, a juvenile probation camp is set to be razed and rebuilt at a cost of $48 million.
But absent from the public discussions has been any long-term plan to improve or replace the 22-acre Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights, which the county's watchdog grand jury recently criticized for being in "severe disrepair," a continuing financial drain on taxpayers and in need of a complete replacement. The facility, which mostly houses minors awaiting trials, is plagued by leaking pipes, dry-rotted support beams, decaying facades and peeling paint, the panel wrote.
"Bath towels and duct tape were used in a futile attempt to repair broken pipes and prevent seepage" in one housing unit, the grand jury reported after members inspected the hall. "There was an indistinct foul odor in the hallway suggesting that sewage or stagnant water was present." They found a "dilapidated" modular building used to house foster youth facing criminal charges was "totally isolated from the main facility and surrounded by barbed wire fencing which gives the appearance of an adult prison, not a youth facility."
Several high-level county officials echoed the grand jury's concerns. Trying to repair and modernize the existing buildings "is like putting a jet engine on a Model T," Probation Department chief Jerry Powers said in an interview.
"It's been a horrible facility for a long time," said Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district includes the hall. "We've tried to clean it up and rehab it and everything, but it needs to be rebuilt."
Advocacy groups, including the Youth Justice Coalition, say the aging central hall is no longer needed and should be torn down and not replaced.
At this point, however, no detailed study of the facility or its future has been conducted. It's unclear whether county officials will back what Powers estimated would be a $50-million replacement price tag for the hall, when so many other costly projects are underway.
"If I had my choice and had all the money I needed, I would support blowing the whole thing up and starting over again," said Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents the southern part of the county. But funding a new central juvenile facility could be difficult, he added. Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who represents northern areas, agreed that the hall needs to be replaced but said through a spokesman that the supervisors would have to look later this year at what funding is available for that and other projects.
In the meantime, the county board has been pouring millions into repairing and keeping open the hall's labyrinth of buildings behind the Eastlake Juvenile Court. Supervisors allocated $5 million this year to alleviate water damage and plumbing issues.
Staff at the hall say they struggle to stay on top of recurring problems with leaking and broken pipes and malfunctioning air conditioning. At the same time, money has been pumped into a patchwork of improvements that include a new swimming pool and replacements of some of the oldest buildings.
Edilberto Flores, 18, spent a month in the hall awaiting trial on an assault with a deadly weapon charge when he was 16. Most of the time, the hot water in the showers didn't work and his cell was so cold during the winter that he had a hard time sleeping, he recalled. Flores said there was mold on the floor in his cell that he suspected was the result of past inmates relieving themselves in the corner when they couldn't get staff's attention for a trip to the restroom.
"We're just kids, man," Flores said. "Yeah, we did something wrong, but we're still human beings."
Now active in the Youth Justice Coalition, Flores said he is off probation and making up credits so he can graduate from high school and begin training as a diesel mechanic.
Another coalition member, a 17-year-old girl who stayed briefly at Central Juvenile Hall in 2010 while being transferred between other facilities, said she couldn't take a shower because the water was brown.
Officials note the number of detainees in the county's three juvenile halls has declined sharply over the last several years, a result of falling crime rates and alternative programs for youths accused of lower-level crimes. The population of the juvenile halls is down from a high of more than 1,700 in 2006 to about 800 as of last week. Central Juvenile Hall, which can house about 600 inmates, is less than half full.
Powers acknowledged that minors detained at the central hall could be shifted elsewhere in the system. But that would create other problems related to transporting juveniles to the central court for proceedings in their cases.
Whether officials ultimately close it down or rebuild it, decisions about the future of Central Juvenile Hall will probably be influenced by recent shifts in thinking about treatment of young offenders, with more emphasis on rehabilitation than punishment and containment of problem minors. Federal authorities are monitoring the treatment of young inmates in probation camps and halls. And the Malibu juvenile camp is being redesigned to support treating and counseling small groups of inmates, a model that advocates say is more humane and more likely to reduce recidivism.
Molina said that if Central Juvenile Hall is rebuilt, the facility's focus should be more "in line with the sort of rehabilitative aspect of what we're supposed to be doing."