Plight of Juveniles at Men’s Jail Spurs Criticism

Plight of Juveniles at Men’s Jail Spurs Criticism
Those Considered the Most Dangerous of Underage Offenders Are More Confined Than Death Row Inmates
By Greg Krikorian and Jean Guccione
Times Staff Writers

June 19, 2003

In a bleak corridor of the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, as many as 44 teenagers spend up to 23 1/2 hours a day locked in windowless 4-by-8-foot cells.

Even more confined than state inmates on death row, the juveniles, mostly 16 and 17, cannot watch TV or listen to a radio. They sleep on inch-thick foam pads and eat meals alone in their cells while facing trial for such crimes as murder and car jacking. Some are accused of lesser violent crimes but are sent here after hurting or threatening others at Juvenile Hall.

Los Angeles County incarcerates twice as many minors this way as the rest of California combined. These teenagers are considered the most dangerous of the 150 or so juveniles who are being tried as adults at any given time in the county.

This longtime practice is drawing the attention of clergy, politicians and New York-based Human Rights Watch, an independent, nongovernmental group that investigates human rights abuses. They cite two suicide attempts by teenagers in Central Jail last month as evidence that the conditions are intolerable.

“It’s shocking,” said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, a public-interest law firm promoting the rights of juveniles. “I’ve been all over the country, and these are the worst conditions we have seen kids housed in.”

Like most states, California’s juvenile justice system is designed to reform rather than punish those who break the law, and minors are usually housed in juvenile halls. Under state law, however, those 17 and younger may be tried as adults for serious crimes and held in jail, segregated from adult inmates.

County probation officials, who run the juvenile halls, stepped up efforts to send minors to jail after a series of highly publicized escapes from juvenile facilities last summer.

“They earned County Jail through misbehavior,” said Robert Smythe, who is responsible for detention of L.A. County’s juveniles.

To curtail escapes, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Curt Livesay directed prosecutors in September to ask judges to send most minors being tried as adults to Central Jail.

Livesay acknowledges that jail is no place for teenagers, even those being tried as adults. “As a society, we shouldn’t be doing this to minors,” he said. “But how do we remedy this? It takes money. And society has to decide whether it wants us to spend it for this.”

In a perfect world, Livesay said, the county would operate a three-tier jail system: for adults, juveniles being tried as adults and juveniles. But he does not believe the cash-strapped county will find an alternative to Central Jail any time soon.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he would prefer to keep all minors out of jail, but lax security at juvenile facilities is a problem. He said complaints about housing minors at Central Jail should go to the state Department of Corrections, which sets the standards.

Jail officials say juveniles are treated better than adult inmates because they receive visits from teachers, chaplains and psychologists.

“We do what is required by law,” Baca said. “We want to provide some services, but we don’t have the money.”

Behind the steel door of Module 4600 of Central Jail are two tiers of 24 cells. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are released for half an hour each day to shower, make phone calls or walk the narrow corridor in front of their cells. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds get an hour a day.

Every Friday, they are taken to the roof for three hours to exercise. The only other times they are allowed to leave their cells are to go to court, meet with lawyers, see family members or go to the clinic.

“I have been to every prison in California, and this is by far the worst,” said Father Gregory Boyle, who for years has helped steer Eastside teenagers away from gangs and into jobs.

Inmates serving sentences at San Quentin, Pelican Bay and other state prisons spend less time in their cells than the teenagers in L.A. County Central Jail. Juveniles held in Orange County jails leave their cells for meals and classes.

“If we treated our pets the way the youth are treated, we would be prosecuted and probably go to jail,” said Javier Stauring, policy director of Faith Communities for Families and Children, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders promoting child welfare.

Stauring, a Roman Catholic chaplain who has spearheaded reform efforts, wrote to Baca last week, urging him to immediately stop the “inhumane practice of incarcerating juveniles” in jail.

Suicide attempts by two teenagers last month at Central Jail “are a direct result of youth routinely being locked in their cells for 23 1/2 hours a day,” Stauring wrote.

One of those youths, Francisco Broadlick, 17, has been in and out of juvenile detention since he was 9, according to his 20-year-old sister, Lisa Broadlick. He was moved to Central Jail after being charged with carjacking. He broke down his first day, she said.

“He said he would rather be dead than be in that place,” she said, recalling a telephone conversation they had three weeks before his suicide attempt.

The second boy, Edward Vigil, 17, who has a history of mental illness, wrote his mother: “I need you to tell my public defender that I am not mentally capable of fighting a case like this, because I am not capable of understanding the consequences of my actions.”

The letter was postmarked May 23, the day before he and Broadlick both tried to hang themselves in their cells.

Court records and interviews suggest that authorities had reasons to monitor Vigil, who is now serving a 22-year prison sentence for armed robbery. Vigil’s probation report said he had attempted suicide several times.

“The defendant,” the report added, “states that he started hearing voices at age 13. They told him he was a ‘bad person.’ They also indicated that he did not ‘deserve to live.’ Furthermore, they told him to ‘hurt people.’ ”

“When he was arrested, I told the officers, ‘You have to watch him; he is suicidal,’ ” Vigil’s mother, Sherry, recalled.

“An hour or so later,” she said, “they came here and said he was at the hospital” after trying to choke himself with handcuffs at the local sheriff’s station.

Smythe said probation officials consider mental health when transferring a minor into Central Jail. But the decision ultimately is based on the minor’s conduct in Juvenile Hall.

Broadlick, who has no history of mental illness, pleaded no contest last month to carjacking and assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

His juvenile record is sketchy. Lisa Broadlick recalls her brother first getting picked up by authorities at 9 and spending most of his childhood in detention. She recalled some of his more memorable offenses: beating up an older boy and taking his bicycle, setting a garage on fire, spraying an ice cream vendor with tear gas.

“He was defiant,” she said. “He really wanted attention.”

Lisa Broadlick talked to her brother the day he was transferred to Central Jail last month. He was scared, she said.

The teenagers were sent to the state prison in Tehachapi two weeks ago to begin their sentences. Vigil, according to officials, has been transferred from Tehachapi to a crisis care bed at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe. Broadlick is on suicide prevention watch and has been transferred to Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga.

After learning of the suicide attempts, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who heads a committee on the state corrections system, said she will call for hearings on the treatment of juvenile offenders.

“These two cases are really symptomatic of a system that I believe has failed to meet the needs of youthful offenders,” she said, urging county officials to improve conditions before they are sued.

Michael Bochenek, counsel for the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, said his organization has been given access to the juvenile unit of Central Jail to report on the conditions.

He said the group is accelerating its investigation in light of the suicide attempts.

“I just finished an investigation of juvenile detention facilities in Brazil,” Bochenek said. “And although it is impossible to make the comparisons the problems in Brazil are those of neglect. Here, it is not one of neglect so much as intent.

“Somebody wants to place kids in these conditions.”

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