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Crowded Juvenile Hall Means Living at the Edge of Violence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nighttime reading is not allowed for youths forced to sleep in makeshift dormitories at the San Fernando Valley Juvenile Hall because guards fear that something as innocuous as a book or magazine could conceal a weapon.

With the hall’s population now 45% over capacity, even the most minor fight has the potential for escalating out of control. As a result, there are rules for everything, most of them aimed at keeping the minors who are incarcerated for offenses ranging from drug possession to murder under the tight discipline of watchful guards.

For example, the only possession those who bed down in the day rooms that serve as dormitories are allowed at night is their underwear. At night, and at times during the day, they are not allowed to utter a word. And, because only five at a time can be in the bathrooms, where silence is also enforced, it can take more than an hour for all the youths to complete their pre-breakfast routines.

“We are not able to provide the kind of secure but relaxed atmosphere that would probably be beneficial to the children,” said Trula Worthy-Clayton, the Sylmar facility’s superintendent. “Even teen-agers want a little peace and quiet.”

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Last week, under an order from the California Youth Authority to alleviate crowding, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to apply for $18 million in state bond funds to expand the Sylmar hall by 160 beds by 1993, and to plan for the future replacement and expansion of the aging Central Juvenile Hall in Lincoln Heights.

The one-story Sylmar hall, encircled by a red brick wall, was built in 1978. It has enough private rooms for 393 youths, but hundreds of others must sleep in open day rooms, which are also used for eating, relaxing and watching television.

For troubled youths, living so close together means that violence is but a blink away, detention officers said. During a visit this past week, a reporter and photographer saw an altercation--quickly squelched--flare up when one boy bumped into another, and they also saw a table that had been broken in two in a schoolroom fight.

“This constant face-to-face contact is not ideal, especially in view of the gang situation on the outside and the fact that many times these kids despise each other,” said Donald McGruder, probation director at the hall.

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Officers keep watch for any signs of gang identification, such as complicated knots in inmates’ shoelaces, and they frequently frisk their charges for pencils, rocks or pieces of metal that could be used as weapons. Infractions of any of the rules can lead, in the most extreme cases, to confinement in an isolation room or even to longer sentences.

Juvenile halls are way stations for youths awaiting court hearings, placement in one of the county’s 15 juvenile detention camps or, for those in the most trouble, a bed in one of the California Youth Authority’s more prison-like facilities. Most of the hall residents range in age from 10 to 17 years, but some are even younger. Only about one in 10 are girls.

Yet similar crowding at county and state facilities has caused a backlog in the system, increasing the average stay at Sylmar from 21 days in 1986 to about 28 today, administrators said. Several youths interviewed this week reported that they had been in limbo in Sylmar for up to seven months.

The youths say their large numbers create basic problems: They aren’t allowed to take afternoon naps because their beds are locked away, and telephone conversations are cut short.

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“When there’s more people, we get less privileges, that’s all,” said Manuel, 16, who had arrived at the hall the night before on the latest of several stays there.

Nonetheless, a few said they actually prefer being with others in the dormitory to the isolation of the private rooms.

“It doesn’t seem like you’re in a jail if you sleep in the day room,” said Cornelius, 16. “If you sleep in one of them rooms all alone, it’s jail.”

The 6 a.m. wake-up call in one of the hall’s units touched off frenetic activity. The 19 youths sleeping in their own rooms were marched--five at a time, hands behind their backs, eyes straight ahead--into the bathroom. Meanwhile, the 12 who slept on the day room floor stripped their beds, folded their mattresses and stored them in closets--all while wearing only their underpants.

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Their clothes are taken away at night to prevent their use in escape or suicide attempts or, in the case of shoes, as weapons. But those assigned to bedrooms keep their clothes outside their doors and are allowed to dress in privacy.

There are not enough county-issued bathrobes to go around, said Charles Drake, a senior detention officer. In fact, on this morning, Vance, 17, is one of only three inmates in the day room wearing a robe. He said it was because he had been there four months, longer than most of the others.

The 31 boys who assembled in the quickly transformed day room to wolf down a hearty breakfast of pancakes, ham, oatmeal and grapefruit were silent as they ate, under orders from the officers.

“The closer they are, the more of them there are, the louder they talk,” said Rosen Bauer, a detention officer. “Pretty soon, you’ve got a whole bunch of kids talking and you don’t know what they’re talking about.”

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The youths march to school daily at a campus run by the Los Angeles County Office of Education on the hall property. There, crowding has had an impact as well. Several times a week, there are more students than can be taught in classrooms and the excess are sent to exercise in the gym. Several times a year, when the hall population nears or tops 600, small groups of students are sent back to their units without receiving any instruction, Principal Solomon Henderson said.

The facility has grown steadily since being rebuilt after it was destroyed in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. Similar growth has occurred at the 117 county and state youth facilities around California, especially those in or near larger cities.

About 17,600 youths were incarcerated statewide last year, compared with about 14,000 in 1984, an increase of 26%, according to youth authority statistics. The youth authority inspects the county programs and runs state facilities for the most hardened young criminals.

But state youth authority officials have allowed violations of their own rules against letting youths sleep on mattresses on the floor in recognition of the lack of sufficient space for all those sent to juvenile hall. State officials have also permitted the facilities to exceed the standard of six youths per toilet, shower and sink.

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“This is not ideal, not something we would want to see on a permanent basis,” said Rito Rosa, regional administrator for the youth authority.

In May, all three county juvenile halls, including Los Padrinos in Downey, were cited by the state for failing to meet even the more lenient emergency standards and were given two months to correct violations ranging from fire hazards and too-thin mattresses to insufficient indoor living space, according to state inspection reports.

Los Padrinos was the last to meet the requirements, a week after the June deadline had passed and after the state had ordered it closed, Rosa said.

Supervisors and staff members at the Sylmar facility are skeptical that the plan for two new 80-bed buildings will ensure a bed for every youth.

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“Come back two to three years after they build these new buildings and there will be people on the floor there too,” said Tommy Brooks, a detention services officer working the day shift in one of the hall’s wings. “With the gap between the rich and the poor widening and the recession coming, there’ll always be more kids.”

According to juvenile justice experts, the increasing numbers of incarcerated youths can be blamed on several factors: gang and drug activity among younger children, more public pressure to lock up those who commit violent crimes, and burgeoning numbers of young adolescents whom one state official called the “echo boomers"--the grandchildren of the post-war baby boom generation.

“It used to be cyclical--we knew we’d have a lot of kids in the early spring every year--but now we have that year-around,” said Rich Rose, an assistant deputy director at the youth authority.

A county plan developed in 1982 to satisfy state rules counted on the opening of the Challenger Youth Memorial camp in Lancaster to relieve this crowding. But even though 440 beds were opened at Challenger in April, things are not much improved.

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Trailer-like dormitories are scheduled to open at all three halls by early next year, providing 60 additional beds at Sylmar. Efforts to cut the number of youths entering the halls continue, McGruder said, with 14 youths from the Sylmar hall released on electronic surveillance “leashes,” 14 in a house arrest program, 35 under a freer home supervision program, and a few in foster or group homes.

“Everything helps,” said Craig Levy, a spokesman for the county probation department. “But it definitely hasn’t solved our problem.”


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