The detention officer’s email described “chaos” inside one of Los Angeles County’s juvenile halls.
Her words were desperate, describing unruly, violent youth and fed up detention officers — enough to prompt a surprise visit by Joe Gardner, president of the county’s volunteer advisory panel, the Probation Commission.
Inside the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, he found shattered windows, smashed walls and tiles ripped from the ceilings. Phones in common areas were busted and debris lay scattered on the floors. Gang graffiti had been scrawled on the walls. The staff were overwhelmed.
“I was stunned,” Gardner said of the facility, where about 200 youths are housed behind a sturdy, red-brick wall topped with circular barbed wire. “Some of the damage appears to have taken time to do. It appeared there really wasn’t the oversight that there needed to be.”
The “chaos” in Sylmar is far from an anomaly. Officers have long argued that their workplaces are becoming more violent — and data backs that up. But internal reports and photographs obtained by The Times show just how dangerous and dysfunctional Los Angeles County’s youth detention operation has become.
The L.A. County Probation Department is facing a series of serious problems, including bursts of violence among detainees, plummeting officer morale and the organizational headaches from closing several detention facilities. Six officers also were recently charged with child abuse and assault over the unreasonable use of pepper spray on several teenagers, putting even more political pressure on the department to stop using it by the end of the year.
“We have way more than enough staff. The problem is people aren’t coming to work because they are afraid,” said Stacy Ford, a veteran detention officer and an executive on rehabilitation camp issues for the rank-and-file union, AFSCME Local 685.
In recent months, the department has acknowledged large fights involving multiple youths, including one last month at Camp Rockey in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. In that incident, young detainees engaged in two separate fights, requiring staff to call in reinforcements to help restore peace and supervise the facility, the department said. Two staff and one detainee required medical attention.
In March, a female detainee leaving a court facility in Compton began to kick the seats and windows of her transport van. The officers struggled to control her, and she repeatedly spat on them. When one officer tried to block the flying saliva, the youth lunged forward and bit the officer’s hand, breaking the skin. She continued to kick, yell obscenities and resist. The officers had to repeatedly call for assistance en route to their destination, according to the report.
In April at Central Juvenile Hall, three youths refused to enter their rooms after eating, delaying a second group’s entrance into the food hall for dinner. At the same time, officers reported they could sense tension coming from the second group related to a previous incident, in which one youth refused to hold a door for another. An officer tried to cool the tension. But they refused to calm down and words involving “gang activity” were exchanged. The officers eventually had to use an upper-body restraint to keep the enraged youths apart.
Such incidents occur almost daily. When they do, detention officers say the recent backlash over the use of force inside the facilities, including an overreliance on pepper spray, has made them increasingly worried about being subjected to internal discipline.
Over time, officers have become reluctant to physically restrain youths to control tense situations, allowing eruptions to occur that have led to injuries or property damage.
“There are no consequences for the negative behavior,” Ford said.
In Sylmar, the conditions were so alarming that Gardner penned a three-page letter to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. In it, he described the officer-turned-whistleblower’s concerns about staff working to a “breaking point” because of officers calling in sick and the intense conditions requiring forced overtime among those who did report to work.
The officer worried about staff fatigue and injuries, saying that fights and assaults were daily occurrences — and that the officers were confused about how best to prevent them.
”There are significant problems at the facility,” she wrote in the email to Gardner. “The facility is significantly understaffed each day. Employees are stated to be quitting.”
In another telling example from the email, the officer said that basketball hoops had been removed because a youth had “escaped a building and climbed onto the goal post and kept staff at bay for six hours.”
The detention officer who sounded the alarm isn’t a union executive. She declined a request for an interview and requested anonymity, citing department policy against unauthorized media communications, and a broader concern about internal retaliation. Because it involves youth and law enforcement, much of the county’s juvenile operation remains secret.
Part of the strain on detention officers is because the Probation Department continues to close facilities amid falling youth crime rates and a shift away from incarceration, while also grappling with an increasingly troubled population that has suffered from trauma, county officials say.
Inside facilities such as Barry J. Nidorf, where as many as 90% of the youths have an open mental health case, according to the county’s Department of Mental Health, the existing staff are expected to provide more intense, one-on-one supervision. But that can leave their colleagues without immediate backup, and so the department has begun asking officers from other facilities to volunteer for overtime shifts.
This mix of factors has contributed to an increase in violence among detainees and assaults against the detention officers in recent years. Systemwide, there were at least 88 instances of youth-on-youth violence and another 46 direct assaults on staff in March, according to data the department began publishing recently.
Indeed, the officer who emailed Gardner was concerned that Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall was becoming overcrowded by the arrival of youths from another hall, Los Padrinos, which is slated to close in July. That perception of overcrowding persists, even though county statistics show the hall’s population has remained relatively constant in the last year.
At the same time, the Probation Department has faced criticism recently over the excessive use of pepper spray by some detention officers — incidents that prompted the Board of Supervisors to phase in a ban and recently resulted in criminal charges against several county employees.
That has fueled additional staff anxiety about losing a tool they feel helps them maintain control, even though youth advocates contend pepper spray is inhumane and inhibits rehabilitation.
Probation Department officials downplayed the reports of chaos.
“Are you going to have incidents? You absolutely are,” said Deputy Chief Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell, who oversees the department’s juvenile supervision efforts. “When we do, we respond quickly. We make sure that the children and the staff are in good stead.”
She acknowledged the recent incidents involving unruly youth at the Barry J. Nidorf facility, but said the damage was isolated to one area and not indicative of the county’s overall operation, which includes two other juvenile halls and a network of seven rehabilitation camps from Malibu to San Dimas.
Last week, for example, three football players from the Los Angeles Chargers visited Central Juvenile Hall with their coach, Anthony Lynn, in an effort to inspire the youths there.
Mitchell said the department has moved to adopt a more therapeutic model for the youth in the system by eliminating solitary confinement, relying less on institutional incarceration and enabling more home-like settings for supervision.
Ford said officers no longer have the option of penalizing youths for acting out, such as by limiting their activities in common areas or reducing their allotted time for outside calls. The department only recently began seeking new charges against youths for assaults, he said.
Given the conditions, Mitchell praised the work of the detention officers and their supervisors during the transition, which has been complicated by the recent retirements of several longtime senior managers, she said.
“Our staff, they really care,” she said. “Each and every day, they come in with an attitude of how we make it better for our children and our community.”
Members of the Board of Supervisors have been aware of problems in juvenile detention facilities for some time. In addition to voting for funding a comprehensive study and voting to phase out the use of pepper spray, last year they launched the Probation Reform and Implementation Team, which has for months held hearings about the department’s use of force, staffing, finances and other issues.
Led by Saul Sarabia, a consultant hired by the county, the team is expected to unveil plans for a permanent new civilian oversight panel that will replace Gardner’s Probation Commission. The team is also synthesizing recommendations from years of reports about the troubled system to draw up a reform plan to guide the newly created commission.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a leader on juvenile probation issues during a decade on the board, said his hope is that this latest effort will solve the department’s challenges.
“I have not seen as much tumult as is currently being witnessed,” he said. “It makes the case for substantial change being warranted.”
For now, Gardner said he hopes his letter prompts management to transfer more staff from other facilities and to continue training for those learning to do their jobs without tools such as pepper spray.
He said he remains hopeful that the system can function better, making it easier to help the kids avoid a lifetime of crime.
“We don’t want them to recidivate,” Gardner said. “The commission has always been focused on the humane care and treatment of those who are in the care of the department — all with the main goal of giving the kids the tools they need so they don’t return to the system or the adult system.”