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The Los Angeles County Probation Oversight Commission is launching an investigation into the “major disturbance” late last month at the newly reopened Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, during which 13 detainees attacked staff in an escape attempt.

Local law enforcement agencies arrived in riot gear and surrounded the facility in response to the juvenile hall’s call for help on July 28. One youth scaled a wall during the chaos at the Downey facility and nearly escaped.

Oversight Commissioner Dolores Canales requested the investigation to clear up discrepancies between media accounts and the county Probation Department’s own statements. A number of early reports described the incident as a “riot,” though probation officials now say it never rose to such a level.

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“It is in the best interest of the Probation Oversight Commission and the public to understand what happened at Los Padrinos on July 28, 2023, and to use the incident as a learning opportunity,” Canales wrote in her motion.

Canales originally asked for the Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General to carry out the investigation, but the inspector general was unable to take the lead due to short staffing. Instead, Probation Oversight Commission employees will direct the probe, with the OIG assisting with any portion that requires confidentiality.

Report expected in 30 days

The investigation will examine what occurred in the days prior to the attack, review security camera footage and determine if staff shortages and the facility’s physical conditions contributed to the scale of the incident. The commission expects a report back on the findings within 30 days.

Albert Banuelos, the facility’s new superintendent, called the disturbance “something we haven’t really experienced.” The fight began about 8 p.m. Friday, July 28, when seven youths assaulted staff members and broke an exterior door attached to their living area. They then broke the window of a second unit, allowing six others to join them on the facility grounds.

The oldest in the group, an 18-year-old, climbed a wall and escaped onto an adjacent golf course, according to the Probation Department, which recommended that the escapee be charged as an adult.

Neither side suffered serious injuries. Banuelos said there was no blood drawn or bones broken. “I’m grateful we didn’t get to that,” he said. “But there was still damage to everybody involved.”

Banuelos described the attack as traumatic for the employees targeted by the group. Internally, he said, the department is conducting its own investigation into the matter.

Pepper spray redeployed

One part of the commission’s separate probe will review whether the incident warranted the redeployment of pepper spray at Los Padrinos.

Interim Probation Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa reinstated the use of oleoresin capsicum spray (OC spray), a type of pepper spray, the day after the attack. Los Angeles County has attempted to phase out the use of the spray in the juvenile halls for years and officials originally touted that none would be used at Los Padrinos when it reopened last month.

Probation officers, meanwhile, have criticized the phase-out, saying that the removal puts officers at risk, by forcing them to physically intervene in situations that could be halted immediately with the spray.

Viera Rosa stated at the time that he would reevaluate his decision in the next few days. Banuelos was unable to provide an update on the status of that evaluation at the oversight commission meeting Thursday, Aug. 10.

A report provided to the commission indicates OC spray was deployed nine times at Los Padrinos from July 29 to Aug. 6. Four deployments stopped youth-on-youth violence, while the other five prevented attacks, or attempted attacks, on staff, according to the report.

Staffing issues persist

The past few months have been particularly tumultuous for the county Probation Department, which has struggled to maintain adequate staffing levels at its facilities.

In early May, a youth at the Secure Youth Treatment Facility (SYTF) in Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall died from a suspected overdose, casting a spotlight on the department’s ongoing struggle to prevent drugs and other contraband from entering its facilities.

Then, days later, the Board of State and Community Corrections ordered the closure of Nidorf and Central juvenile halls within 60 days due to the “unsuitable” conditions at the two facilities. In response, the county scrambled to renovate and prepare Los Padrinos, which had been closed since 2019, to house the roughly 275 youth, and moved the last of the group just days before the deadline.

It was supposed to be a fresh start, but the newly reopened facility almost immediately began experiencing problems. The air conditioner broke during one of the first visitation weekends. Visitors described smelling mildew and seeing signs of bug infestations. Detainees didn’t have access to any forms of entertainment and weren’t receiving enough time outdoors, creating a sense of restlessness that some youth blamed for their drug abuse.

The July 28 lockdown was the second in a week. The first was prompted by the discovery of an unsecured firearm in a staff area on July 21. That matter is still under investigation.

Fentanyl could be smuggled

Meanwhile, drugs have continued to enter the facilities, with officials acknowledging during a county Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday that the security in place isn’t effective enough at detecting pills and other narcotics that might be hidden on someone’s person.

“If someone was to put fentanyl, a little tiny pill, in an inside jacket, could that be detected?” asked Supervisor Janice Hahn.

“With the technology that we have right now, the honest answer is no,” responded Eric Strong, the Probation Department’s chief safety and security officer.

At the meeting, Strong said the department has taken several steps to increase security, including implementing a clear-bag policy, providing additional training for staff, deploying drug-sniffing police dogs and doubling the number of contracted security officers working in and around the facilities.

The agency is pursuing airport-style, full-body scanners to replace the metal detectors used now and wants to install nets along the perimeter that would combat contraband from being thrown over the walls, he said.

It is worrying that drugs are still getting smuggled in despite the department’s efforts, Hahn said at the meeting.

“If this security company can’t do it, then let’s find one that can,” she said. “Because first and foremost, we have to keep drugs from coming into these facilities, then we can really focus on programming and healing.”

Inspections looming

The Probation Department might not have long to implement reforms. The Board of State and Community Corrections is set to begin inspecting both Los Padrinos and the SYTF at Barry J. Nidorf for suitability this month. If Los Angeles County fails those inspections, it could find itself facing more shutdowns within the next year.

Sean Garcia-Leys, a probation oversight commissioner, put it bluntly at the commission’s Aug. 10 meeting.

“I see in six to nine months the BSCC shutting down Los Padrinos unless there is something radically different done, and I don’t see any plans to do anything radically different,” Garcia-Leys told officials from the department. “I just see a lot of plans to keep working harder until we get things a little bit better and that’s not going to be sufficient.”

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