Lawyers in a class-action suit over Juvenile Hall conditions argued in court Thursday that a county policy of tying youths to their beds during emergency confrontations is a product of the operators' "siege mentality" and should be eliminated.
"It's the staff making exaggerated demands for submission to authority," said Mark I. Soler, the lead attorney representing past and present Juvenile Hall inmates. "They are not trained to realize they are only escalating the tension."
The elimination of the tie-down policy and so-called "rubber rooms" for problem youths at Juvenile Hall have been the two main issues before Superior Court Judge Linda H. McLaughlin during the five-week, non-jury trial, which is winding down.
County Chief Probation Officer Michael A. Schumacher announced during the proceedings that Juvenile Hall officials had decided on their own to replace the standard 10-foot cloth restraints with padded, leather handcuffs such as those used by the California Youth Authority.
The inmates' lawyers, who had argued that the cloth strips tightened and cut off circulation, hailed the decision but said it wasn't enough. Under the present policy, Schumacher's staff is still allowed to tie a youth to his or her bed.
Soler, of the Youth Law Center, and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union want no tie-downs. But if the judge decides to permit them, the plaintiffs want tie-down orders to come only from medical or mental health personnel--not Juvenile Hall duty officers as the policy now allows.
"The only real difference is, instead of tying the kids to their beds, now they chain them," said ACLU attorney Dick Herman outside the courtroom.
But Judge McLaughlin repeatedly questioned both sides during closing arguments Thursday. And she pointed out to Soler that emergencies do occur.
"How do you propose to address the clear emergency?" the judge asked, noting that there was some evidence presented at the trial that simply placing leather handcuffs on a youth causing a disturbance might not be adequate.
Soler answered that it was acceptable to physically restrain a youth. But if tie-downs are permitted, he said, it should come only on a temporary order from a nurse until a doctor can be consulted.
"What we object to is tying the youth to a fixed object (such as a bed)," Soler said, adding: "The damage comes from the psychological trauma of being tied down like that."
The county's attorney in the lawsuit, David G. Epstein, argued that the physical damage that an out-of-control youth can cause should be weighed against whatever physical or psychological damage might result from being tied down.
But the judge virtually reprimanded him when he argued that the evidence showed that the physical injuries from the sheet tie-downs amounted to no more than discoloration of a youth's wrists.
"I should hope NOT!" the judge cut in. She added that discoloration alone was enough to make it disturbing, particularly in testimony that one youth's wrists had actually turned black.
"Just because some didn't get gangrene or a limb cut off doesn't mean that it's not serious," the judge said.
But Epstein argued that in rare cases, the tie-down was the only method that could control a youth.
"We don't want these decisions made lightly," Epstein said. "But when all else fails, we need to have this resource available."
Regarding the rubber rooms--empty padded cells--the plaintiffs want them eliminated. But short of elimination, they want them used only on orders from mental health personnel. Currently, a shift operator can order a youth placed in a rubber room.
The ACLU initiated the lawsuit three years ago, claiming a variety of offenses at Juvenile Hall. Basically, Soler argued to the court Thursday, the staff has maintained an attitude of demanding obedience from youths detained there.
"Our clients are not angels, nor are they monsters," Soler said. "They are children who are quite troubled. When they feel like they have been treated unfairly, they are going to fight back, even when they know they can't win."
Schumacher has defended the Juvenile Hall's operation, calling it a "first-rate facility."