Juvenile detention sites under scrutiny
Youths mistreated, law firm alleges :
April 19, 2006 Lawyers for a prison rights law firm are raising allegations of mistreatment in San Diego County juvenile halls, claiming some youths are subjected to a "serious risk of violence" while in detention.
The firm, which teamed up with the small but influential Prison Law Office to sue about conditions in jails statewide, says it found abuse in the use of pepper spray, misuse of medications, lack of medical care and improper isolation of youths in an investigation of local facilities that began last year.
The allegations were outlined for Chief Probation Officer Vincent Iaria in a March 14 letter, which was obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune through the California Public Records Act.
In the letter, lawyers for the firm Bingham McCutchen of San Francisco described "alarming" conditions in four county juvenile-detention facilities – in Kearny Mesa, Campo, Camp Barrett and the newest hall at East Mesa near the international border.
The allegations, based on interviews with a dozen detained youths, some parents and other sources, include:
Excessive use of pepper spray on youths in custody. One youth said he was sprayed in the anus while sitting on the toilet. Others reported being sprayed or seeing others being sprayed for minor reasons, such as not keeping their hands in the correct position while walking.
The lawyers contend that some juveniles had to wait more than 30 minutes before being taken to a shower to rinse off the spray. Others, they said, were treated more harshly.
"The pain from being pepper-sprayed appears to be purposefully exacerbated by staff who place the juveniles in a hot shower afterward followed by a drying off period using cold air from a large fan while the juveniles are still in their wet clothes," the lawyers wrote.
Deficient medical and mental health care. A "disturbingly large" number of youths said they were being prescribed Seraquil, a psychotropic drug used to treat certain bipolar disorders. Some juveniles said they were being given the drug – which can make people lethargic – to help them sleep.
"At best Seraquil is being administered unnecessarily," the lawyers said. "At worst it is being administered in order to ease the staff's work by making the juvenile population easier to control."
"Appalling conditions" in the administrative segregation unit at East Mesa, a $52 million facility opened in 2004. "Here, juveniles are isolated in their cells more than 23 hours a day, for weeks and even months on end," the lawyers wrote.
Such a practice, known as "23/1", was used for years by the California Youth Authority, the state's juvenile detention system. The practice was stopped after the Prison Law Office sued the state three years ago over conditions in the facilities.
That lawsuit was settled. State officials agreed to improve conditions and stop certain practices, several of which the lawyers now contend are in use in county detention halls in San Diego and elsewhere in the state.
The March 14 letter requested a meeting with county officials to try to resolve the issues raised "without protracted and expensive litigation."
County lawyers responded by asking for more details substantiating the allegations, such as dates or names of individuals who claim they were mistreated.
In the meantime, the county is bracing for a suit. Citing that possibility, probation officials issued a statement from Iaria in which he largely defended the county's system.
"All detention facilities are meticulously inspected by local, state and federal agencies regularly," he said. "All facilities have been consistently found to meet or exceed regulations."
Iaria also said the department is conducting an inquiry into the allegations, but argued that the lawyers' letter "assumes without further support that the limited number of alleged incidents is indicative of the juvenile facilities as a whole."
The local investigation is part of a campaign by a coalition of law firms, led by Prison Law Office, aimed at changing the conditions at county-run juvenile facilities across the state.
Lawyers will hold a news conference today in San Francisco to announce a lawsuit against theCorrections Standards Authority, the state agency responsible for overseeing juvenile halls.
The lawsuit wants the state authority to enforce its standards at local juvenile halls and will include details from investigations the law firms have conducted in San Diego and other counties, said Frank Pizzurro, a spokesman for the law firms.
Don Specter, executive director of Prison Law Office, declined yesterday to comment on the legal action expected today.
Prison Law Office has a history of successfully suing state officials over conditions behind bars, from medical care to use of force by guards. The court victories have resulted in wide-ranging and often costly changes.
State law says juvenile facilities cannot be mini-jails, but must be more like "a safe and supportive homelike environment." The lawyers working for reform say the county is failing to meet that standard, and should do so or risk being sued.
This is not the first time the county has faced litigation over its juvenile-detention system. In 1990, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties sued on the same grounds, that the "homelike" environment standard was not being met because of chronic overcrowding at the Juvenile Hall in Kearny Mesa.
That suit led to court-ordered caps on the number of children who could be housed at the aging hall. The burgeoning population was one of the several reasons the county built the East Mesa facility.
In his statement yesterday, Iaria defended medical care in the county juvenile system and said the Kearny Mesa facility is one of only seven in the state to be accredited by the California Medical Association. He said complaints of misconduct by probation officers is "rare" but investigated thoroughly.
County officials have also taken issue with how the law firm conducted the investigation, which started late last year after the firm said it received reports of poor conditions in county facilities.
The law firm sent a batch of letters addressed to youths, apparently asking if they wished to speak about the conditions.
When county lawyers found out about the mailing, they pressed attorneys from Bingham McCutchen to say how they obtained the names of juveniles, according to correspondence obtained by the Union-Tribune.
Most juvenile records are confidential, and county lawyers said that breaching that secrecy can be a crime.
On Nov. 18, 2005, two lawyers from the firm tried to contact seven youths who had responded to the letters but were turned away.
In a Dec. 27 letter to lawyer Monty Agarwal, Senior Deputy County Counsel William Pettingill asked Agarwal to reveal how the lawyers obtained the names of the youths in custody.
Agarwal declined in a Jan. 5 letter, in which he also criticized the county for turning away the lawyers the previous month.
On Jan. 10, Pettingill wrote that the matter was being referred to the District Attorney's Office.
Since then, the county has allowed the lawyers access to some juveniles, Agarwal said this week.