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Criminal Justice

Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall Was 'Dangerously' Understaffed When Youth Escaped Last Fall, Inspector General Says

A sign reads on a dirty building reads: Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. Street lights and wires are visible over the roof.
Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey
Robert Garrova / LAist
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Los Padrinos juvenile hall in Downey was “dangerously” understaffed when an incarcerated youth temporarily escaped the facility last fall, according to a new report from the county inspector general.

The report, sent to L.A. County supervisors, stated that more than half of county probation department staff scheduled to work at the facility that day did not show up for their shifts.

That and other details laid out in the report deliver yet another blow to the embattled department, which was ordered by the state to shutdown Los Padrinos by mid-April if staffing, safety concerns and other problems aren't resolved.

Among other recommendations, the report from the county Office of the Inspector General urges authorities to make immediate moves at Los Padrinos to increase staffing.

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"The Probation Department should disband all nonessential field staff units, provide those staff members with necessary training to staff the juvenile facilities, and redeploy them to the juvenile halls and any other juvenile facility facing staffing issues. Immediately," the report states.

How we got here

Milinda Kakani, director of youth justice at Children’s Defense Fund CA, said the recommendations don’t get to the heart of the issue: young people at the facility are languishing because the county hasn't provided enough programs and activities to fill their time effectively.

“When you cage and control young people... your instinct is going to be to get out, and especially when we don’t have anyone in there who’s in a position to really cultivate relationships with these young people and ensure that even their most basic needs are being met,” said Kakani, who also serves on the Probation Oversight Commission.

In an emailed statement Friday afternoon, the Probation Department said it had received and “thoroughly reviewed” the inspector general’s report and was taking steps to increase staffing by directing some 200 officers with field assignments to report to Los Padrinos.

The Brief

The escape

According to the report, 100 probation staffers were scheduled to work at Los Padrinos on Nov. 4 — the minimum required — but about 60 did not show up. Even after the department pulled employees in from field assignments, the facility remained severely understaffed.

It’s not clear why the staff members didn't show up that day, but the report notes that roughly 40 of them called in to let their supervisors know they would not be reporting to work. The others did not call.

At the time of the escape, only one probation employee was supervising a unit of 14 youths, some of whom had been involved in a previous escape, the report states.

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With the help of another incarcerated youth, one person was able to wrestle a key away from a probation officer, unlock a door and let five others detainees out. A group of detainees boosted one youth over a 13-foot wall.

That person was found nearby and apprehended less than 15 minutes after the incident began.

The report points out that an officer couldn't call for help because his radio wasn't charged. Another tried to text police for assistance, but an automated response to the message was “[t]his system does not receive replies.”

An embattled probation department

The report underscores concerns raised by the Board of State and Community Corrections, which has given the Probation Department until April 16 to fix several problems or be forced to vacate Los Padrinos, where roughly 300 youths are held.

Last month, inspectors with the board presented a list of roughly a dozen concerns about the facility, which recent inspections found was out-of-compliance on staffing requirements, safety checks, and use-of-force training.

Referencing a separate matter at another facility, the Probation Department said Monday that an employee had been arrested and charged with “sex with an inmate” and “arranging a meeting with a minor for lewd purpose."

The department said in a statement that a phone was confiscated from a youth at the department’s Dorothy Kirby Center in Commerce, and later the chief safety and security officer the "became aware of a sexual relationship involving an on-duty female Probation Officer with a male youth detainee.”

That investigation is ongoing.

‘None of this is new’

Kakani, with the Children’s Defense Fund, said the Probation Department is not currently designed to humanely incarcerate young people.

As for the concerns raised in the inspector general’s report, “none of this is new,” Kakani said.

“So I guess it’s hard for me to have faith that the system is going to figure out how to get it right when these have been the same issues for not just years, but decades,” she said.

Kakani said the county still had a lot of work to do in order to realize its Youth Justice Re-Imagined plan, a framework approved by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 2020 that calls for eventually ending the probation department's supervision of juveniles, passing control to a new Department of Youth Development.

In the meantime, Kakani said the Probation Department is further criminalizing young people for conditions it created. She said young people at Los Padrinos were “bored out of their minds” at the facility because of a lack of things for them to do.

Dozens of individuals have been charged with new crimes since Los Padrinos reopened last year, Kakani said.

“No one is taking any responsibility for what’s happening and we’re forcing kids to do that," she said.

A spokesperson for the state oversight board said inspections are ongoing at the facility ahead of an April 11 meeting, in which Los Padrinos is on the agenda.

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