Los Angeles
Inside LA's out-of-control juvenile jails where violence rules in the Newsom era
Los Angeles
Inside LA's out-of-control juvenile jails where violence rules in the Newsom era
Inmates matching on the yard at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, as they are moved between locations.

This is the first of a four-part series looking into the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles as told by people who work there. It’s a world where youth convicted of violent felonies are said to control the jails, while law enforcement is helpless to stop it due to defunding and downgrades to formerly strict laws.  

Imagine a jail where inmates rule over guards who fight for survival daily among killers, carjackers, and vicious gang members.

That's life every day inside Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall.

"Our juvenile halls are on the verge of collapse. I really believe someone is going to get killed at some point," one official told the Washington Examiner.

A series of state and local laws designed to clear California lockups have reached down to juvenile facilities where inmates learn now that they can get away with anything short of murder, officials said.

While politicians have been placing more juvenile offenders in the communities instead of behind bars, those left behind are the worst of the worst.

“The only kids we have detained are the most violent, aggressive, assaultive kids who have committed the most heinous crimes against society,” one Los Angeles County Probation Department manager told the Washington Examiner. “We don’t have a kid who stole a pair of jeans from JCPenney. We have a kid who put a gun to someone’s head and splattered their brains against a wall.”

The Washington Examiner spoke to two veteran probation officials who described a hopeless situation where officers routinely receive catastrophic injuries yet no support from county lawmakers who want a softer approach for juvenile offenders.

The Los Angeles County Probation Department staffs the county’s four juvenile jails, where the number of officers has shrunk by about 700 in recent years. Those who don’t retire from debilitating injuries are being driven out by PTSD, both an officer and a manager said. They declined to be named fearing repercussions.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has downgraded use-of-force guidelines and forbidden the use of standard nonlethal weapons such as pepper spray and Tasers while instituting a hiring freeze creating a short-staffed situation, the officials said.

“We’ve had back injuries, fractures, and broken bones,” the officer said. “One officer recently broke his hip and had to have pins put in. He fell on a concrete floor during a restraint. These are 18-, 19-year-old kids who are used to fighting and a lot more durable than 40- or 50-year-old people.”

The situation has become so dangerous that staff members and officers have started to smuggle in contraband for inmates as a way of buying favor to avoid injury. Items include cellphones, laptops, and drugs.

Los Angeles County has about 600 inmates housed at jails called Juvenile Hall, down from three times that number over the past four years. In 2020, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that ordered the closure of California’s four state juvenile prisons, which numbered 750 inmates, mostly convicted of violent felonies.

Barbed wire top fencing and a structure at the Juvenile Probation Camp, Camp Scott in Santa Clarita.
Ann Johansson/Corbis via Getty Images

These prisoners were transferred to less secure county juvenile jail facilities that are not designed to hold inmates charged with major crimes, the officials said. The closure mirrored what has been happening in adult prisons where many felonies have been downgraded and prisoners are transferred locally to serve lesser sentences.

Closing prisons would “enable youth to remain in their communities and stay close to their families to support rehabilitation,” Newsom said at the time. In 2020, state juvenile prisons had populations with 14% convicted of murder, 37% for assault, and 34% for robbery, the Associated Press reported.

Newsom also signed a bill forbidding prosecutors from charging juveniles with a second violent felony while incarcerated. So while adult counterparts still faced additional time in prison, juveniles are now punished for whichever crime is the most severe — whether committed in jail or the initial crime for which they were sentenced. This gives inmates the incentive to assault staff, knowing nothing will happen to them, the officers said.

“I guarantee you, everyone who is working in those institutions are suffering from PTSD,” the manager said. “You cannot confront these kids for any negative behavior. We deal with physical and mental abuse every single day.”

The Washington Examiner also viewed graphic photos of a female officer with blood gushing from her nose and another officer with a huge welt surrounding her eye socket. Many officers and staff members believe it’s easier to deliver contraband to inmates than suffer injuries, the officer said.

Inmates have no incentive to behave because their punishment is simply a few hours locked in their cells and then they are back in a group day room to wreak havoc, the officer said.

“The staff is so scared, the kids will get them to bring a laptop or cellphone — it’s a proactive measure to say, ‘You leave me alone,’” the officer said. “It used to be something as easy as a cheeseburger or a pizza. Now they are using cellphones to order drugs from the outside, thrown over the wall.”

One such situation recently occurred where a female officer was outside with a group of prisoners. Someone threw drugs into the yard and a teenager ordered the officer to retrieve it, but she refused. Later that day, she was jumped by several inmates and assaulted. Her eye socket was fractured, and she is on medical leave along with about 100 other injured officers, the manager said.

“Everyone is so afraid of confrontation. No one believes the officers, and they are believing the detainees,” said the manager recounting a typical internal use-of-force investigation. “The officers want the day to go by without any unnecessary nonsense” so they agree to deliver contraband.

One inmate admitted to receiving drugs regularly from the outside but complained to staff that he paid an employee $500 but didn’t get his shipment, the officer said.

The manager said the situation is so demoralizing that the department couldn’t keep a recent class of recruits who were somehow hired and trained despite a hiring freeze. The class had eight people, and seven resigned the first week.

“It’s a facade — we have no power. These kids are in complete control of everything we do here,” the manager said.

Recently, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Holly Mitchell toured one of the jails with an entourage and was given an upbeat report that was just “smoke and mirrors,” the manager said.

Mitchell did not agree to an interview for this article. However, Kathryn Barger, the lone Republican on the board, provided a statement saying she directed the chief probation officer to find solutions to the staffing problems.


“I’m deeply concerned about the challenges our Probation Department is experiencing,” Barger said. “The well-being and safety of the juveniles under our supervision is dependent on the county’s ability to fully staff its juvenile halls and camps — it’s a balancing act. You can’t have one without the other. Our path forward must focus on taking immediate action to resolve the department’s workforce challenges. … We need to act with urgency before tragedy strikes.”

Meanwhile, the county is turning some former camps for low-level offenders into jails as the more secure facilities are closed. One of these will be in the celebrity enclave Malibu, where the parameter wall is accessible by the public, allowing outside conversations with prisoners and easy access to contraband.

Malibu was initially built as a baseball camp for teenagers convicted of minor crimes such as shoplifting. In Los Angeles County, District Attorney George Gascon has a platform of trying to rehabilitate teenagers in the community and not charge them with serious felonies, prosecutors told the Washington Examiner. The only ones left behind bars are hardcore criminals.

“They are trying to put this perception out in society that the kids we have detained are kids who grew up in Mayberry and stole candy,” the manager said. “These are violent offenders. They have done home invasions and raped the women in their home. They have stolen cars and run over the people. We have a 14-year-old who committed a homicide in a burglary gone bad. It’s such a misperception that they are low-level, first-time offenders that succeed in a scared-straight environment.”

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