Hundreds of kids in Los Angeles are languishing in a detention center that one probation monitor likens to a “Third World country prison.” According to a scathing new report on conditions in L.A. County’s main juvenile detention center, Central Juvenile Hall, some 200 kids — most of whom are waiting for their trials to start — are living in squalid units and tossed in solitary confinement for minor infractions.
Boyle Heights community leader Azael Martinez, who also volunteers as a probation department monitor, was pegged to investigate and report on the county’s juvenile facilities by Supervisor Hilda Solis. He discovered that the 22-acre compound, commonly referred to as Eastlake, has walls that are covered in scum and graffiti. Kids are forced to use staff bathrooms because theirs don’t have running water. They are also drenched in urine that splashes on them because the facility’s urinals are broken or covered in waste.
Martinez also found that staff routinely put kids in isolation for reasons that don’t fall under the department’s guidelines, such as sharing food.
In his report, Martinez called the conditions “deplorable” and described the culture of apathy among staff. In general, employees at the facility feel victimized and don’t take responsibility for the “unacceptable” environment.
“It appears that no one cares,” he wrote in his report. “Staff does not know who is in charge and are quick to push the blame elsewhere.”
Officials have already launched their own investigations of the facility, including Interim Probation Chief Cal Remington and Supervisor Michael Antonovich.
But the city has long known about the decrepit conditions at Eastlake, which is more than 100 years old. In 2014, a grand jury reported that the detention center is literally falling apart, with broken pipes and rotting facades.
“Bath towels and duct tape were used in a futile attempt to repair broken pipes and prevent seepage,” the jury wrote. “There was an indistinct foul odor in the hallway suggesting that sewage or stagnant water was present.”
Supervisors have expressed an interest in rebuilding the facility altogether, but also point to the high cost of doing so. Two years ago, the county funneled billions of dollars into men’s and women’s jails, and allotted $48 million to rebuild another juvenile facility. Only $5 million was given to Eastlake for repairs.
In addition to being placed in wretched conditions, there is little evidence to suggest that youth detention in L.A. County is serving its primary purpose.
Juvenile justice is supposed to be rehabilitative in nature, but a Cal State L.A. study concluded that one-third of juvenile offenders are re-arrested within a year of their release from detention. The vast majority of offenders have a mental illness, and half have histories of substance abuse.
Youth who spent time in the system reported that rehabilitation programs are few and far between and participating in them is a privilege that can be revoked. Some facilities have no programs at all, and many lack trusted adults to mentor and counsel kids in the system.
L.A. County currently has the largest juvenile justice system in the country. It costs $230,600 a year to incarcerate one kid there.