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Keeping Kids in Tiny Cells Downtown Is Cruel, and Probably Illegal

The sheriff is holding juveniles in the Men's Central Jail despite a finding by Los Angeles County that the facility isn't fit for them.

November 24, 2003|Michael Bochenek and Javier Stauring

The Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles currently holds about 30 youths under the age of 18 -- twice as many kids as the combined total for all the other adult jails in California.

These are all children who have been charged or tried as adults but, by law, they must be separated by sight and sound from adult detainees. To comply with that standard, the youths are generally locked in windowless single cells for 23 1/2 hours each day. The cells measure 4 by 8 feet, which means that they are confined in spaces narrower than their outstretched arms.

It's outrageous that youths as young as 14 should be held in such conditions. But even though the county Board of Supervisors decided in July to move them all to a juvenile hall, they're still there. And this month the sheriff's office said it had no intention of moving them all. Those who are close to age 18 or who are serving sentences of one year or less in county jail will have to stay.

What's life like for these kids? In addition to 30 minutes a day for showers and phone calls, they have a three-hour recreation period once a week in individual rooftop cages that are just slightly larger than their cells and contain only a pull-up bar and a telephone. Apart from these brief breaks, family and attorney visits and trips to the nurse or court, they remain locked up with little or nothing to do.

They may not watch television or listen to the radio. They eat their meals alone in their cells.

There is no classroom instruction in the jail. Instead, each youth sees a teacher through the cell bars for five to 15 minutes, two or three times a week. Jail staff told us that state education laws required only one hour of face-to-face instruction per week, but the jail does not meet even that minimum requirement. In addition, jail officials make no efforts to identify youths with special education needs, despite a federal law that requires they do so.

In these harsh detention conditions, there have been at least three suicide attempts in the last six months. One boy tried to kill himself on June 30. Two others attempted suicide on or about May 24. One of these boys had a history of mental illness and had previously attempted to kill himself while in police custody.

It was the suicide attempts that persuaded the Board of Supervisors that the jail was unsuitable and unsafe for kids. That was nearly five months ago. Sheriff Lee Baca told us at the end of July that all of the kids would be out within 60 days. But it wasn't until Nov. 14 that the first four kids moved from the Men's Central Jail to a juvenile hall in Norwalk.

Under the Sheriff's Department's latest policy, some kids would remain at Men's Central for up to one year. And at least two youths have entered the jail in the week since the first group transferred to Norwalk.

The new Sheriff's Department policy is probably illegal; after all, the board has effectively closed Men's Central for juvenile detainees. It's certainly illogical: The Sheriff's Department has apparently decided that it can house some youths in unsuitable conditions even though the board has determined that the jail is fit for none of them.

And the policy is resoundingly unwise, inviting costly litigation and failing to give youths the rehabilitative services that they will need before they return to their communities.

It is difficult to see how anyone could disagree with the board's decision to move these kids. Locking juveniles up in such tiny spaces is simply cruel. The fact that many of them were charged with serious crimes, including murder, cannot excuse the deplorable conditions in which they are held.

"Forcing juveniles to be adults just causes more anger that comes out in the wrong way," wrote one youth who entered the jail at age 16. "And those who hold it in are the ones who try to take their lives."

Nor is it reasonable for the Sheriff's Department to argue that there is no other place to hold these youths safely. California's juvenile halls routinely house youths charged as adults with serious crimes.

Ironically, the largest group that would remain in Men's Central under the sheriff's plan -- those who are serving one-year sentences -- are those who are being held for less serious offensives.

County officials need to show some leadership on this issue. Judges should not refuse to transfer kids from a facility that the Board of Supervisors has deemed unsafe. Sheriff Baca shouldn't backtrack on his promise to move all of the kids now held in Men's Central. And the board shouldn't stand by while its employees flout its directives.

They should all remember that treating detained kids inhumanely benefits nobody -- not the youths themselves, not the adults who are charged with their care and not the communities to which they will one day return.

Michael Bochenek is counsel to the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Javier Stauring is co-director of detention ministries for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and policy director for Faith Communities for Families and Children.

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