Life inside Los Angeles County’s juvenile detention centers can be menacing for the hundreds of young people locked up there — and for the guards who oversee them.
Overwhelmed and fearful detention officers use profanity and taunts in an effort to maintain control. The detainees endure threats to their families and disrespect of their neighborhoods, and are often doused with pepper spray.
Sometimes, the detainees say they are even denied basic human dignity — forced to use trash cans and other containers instead of toilets and sinks.
It’s an environment that fuels conflict, according to insider accounts in a new county report.
“There are children in these camps who have suffered traumas — like many people who commit crimes do — and the staff feels ill-equipped to handle it,” said Saúl Sarabia, a consultant hired by Los Angeles County who leads a committee studying better oversight of the system. “There’s a lot of volatility.”
In addition to raising concerns about the practice, leading the county’s Board of Supervisors to consider a ban on pepper spray, their review offered a rare glimpse into the nation’s largest juvenile probation operation.
The report describes a system in which, despite the often best intentions of thousands of county employees and a $400 million annual budget, the jailed and the jailers alike sometimes struggle to follow the rules. And policymakers continue to grapple with longstanding attempts at reform.
On an average day, the Probation Department oversees more than 7,000 juveniles involved in criminal cases. Most are supervised in at-home settings.
But about 750 of them are held in county-run detention facilities. Those include juvenile halls — the hardened jail-like facilities where detainees are sent to await trial and sentencing — and camps, residential-style facilities geared toward rehabilitation where youths are held for up to six months post-adjudication.
What happens at these halls and camps is largely unknown to outsiders because of laws protecting the privacy of the children in custody.
Internal reports about individual incidents involving the use-of-force by guards or violence between detainees generally aren’t made public under California’s open records laws, for example.
Similarly, the disciplinary histories of detention officers, who are licensed peace officers, remain confidential in most cases. A state law mandating more transparency from law enforcement agencies went into effect Jan. 1, but police unions are seeking to block it.
Still, the report presented to the Board of Supervisors last week offered some insight, describing dysfunction that complicates operations and calls into question the department’s fulfillment of its mission — to rehabilitate, not punish, juveniles, who get into trouble.
Some of the young detainees interviewed by investigators described incidents of “frequent disrespect” and “verbal mistreatment” by staff, behavior they said creates a tense environment fueling aggression.
The report included descriptions of regular profanity, taunts and criticism by staff — incidents that sometimes even escalated to threats, some of the people interviewed alleged.
“Youth at two different facilities stated that staff told them that if they did not behave, they would ‘join their dead homies,’” according to the report.
Juveniles also alleged “significant concerns” about a culture of staff retaliation in which they were sometimes denied access to church and other programs and were sometimes punished as a group for the acts of others.
The investigators heard stories about detainees being denied access to bathrooms for an extended period, either because their rooms didn’t have them or because staff couldn’t escort them.
“Some incidents reviewed involve clear misconduct,” county investigators wrote. “While some inappropriate conduct identified might be prevented through effective policy revision and training, the most problematic incidents … are symptoms [of] larger systemic and cultural issues that require immediate and extensive analysis and reform.”
In testimony before the supervisors and an interview last week, Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald defended her staff, saying they are committed to proper care of locked-up youth.
“The vast majority of employees work really well with kids and care deeply about the kids,” she said. “People should be assured that we’re not going to tolerate any abuse of children, and we’re not going to tolerate what I call abusive indifference.”
That commitment is put to the test daily, though, in a system filled with an increasing number of juveniles who require mental-health services, gang intervention and substance-abuse treatment.
“The kids have profound needs,” McDonald said. “We have people who are really in crisis.”
At the same time, guards and staff at juvenile camps and halls report feeling “outnumbered and overpowered” by the young detainees and sometimes working in fear.
That reality, among other factors, has prompted an increased reliance on pepper spray, allowing guards to defuse violent situations without the kind of physical intervention that might cause injuries or disciplinary inquiries.
County investigators found that detention staff use the spray too often, and sometimes in avoidable situations, instead of as a last resort as department policy dictates. The report describes incidents of guards shaking canisters to gain control in nonviolent situations and issuing blanket warnings about deploying it at the beginning of their shifts.
Perhaps most troubling, the report found, were lapses in effective decontamination of the youths who had been sprayed, exacerbating the severe irritation to the skin and eyes that it causes. In one case, a detainee was captured on video washing his face in a toilet.
Guards and staff told investigators that they feel unsupported by superiors. Many also believe they lack the training to deal with the mental-health needs or difficult behavioral challenges among the detainees.
“Staff consistently identified a lack of effective policies and training that would prepare them to attempt to de-escalate tense situations,” according to the report.
They’re also confused about the procedures in some cases. The county’s report included an image of a slide used in training guards and staff on how to write reports on physical altercations. It asks: “Did you really mean what you wrote?”
The training suggests avoiding specific words, such as “tackled” or “dragged,” which can lead to trouble and “unintentionally evoke suspicion.” That could have the effect of motivating false reporting, the county report suggests.
These revelations are the latest controversy for the Probation Department, which has for years been forced to comply with a monitoring agreement with the U.S. Justice Department related to excessive pepper-spray use.
In recent years, the Board of Supervisors has sought to implement lasting reforms, commissioning a comprehensive report and changing policy, including new juvenile facilities with a softer approach focusing on programming and rehabilitation.
A committee created last summer, the Probation Reform and Implementation Team, aims to synthesize past recommendations into a comprehensive action plan and form a new oversight body, similar to the one now involved in setting policy at the Sheriff’s Department.
Such reforms could include better training in de-escalation tactics, an improved camera system in halls and camps to ensure accountability, and more resources for mental-health needs.
“The beginning is for the staff to come with a different understanding,” said Phal Sok, a former juvenile detainee and now an organizer with Youth Justice Coalition, a local group that works to reduce incarceration.
He suggested the department include more mental-health staffers and teachers rather than employees trained in law enforcement. “Bring in a different pool of people who come with a different attitude.”
Another change on the horizon for the department is a new use-of-force policy, which could set new guidelines for guards in navigating confrontations with juvenile detainees.
The county’s probation reform team is ultimately expected to recommend a structure for the oversight panel and a report charting a strategy to tackle the department’s challenges in phases this year.
As the reform effort continues, the supervisors plan to discuss this month whether to phase out pepper spray in juvenile facilities altogether — an idea that is likely to involve negotiating with labor unions representing detention staff and additional training on how to maintain order before it becomes a reality.
Still, some advocates are skeptical about the prospects for change.