Crime & Justice

At one juvenile hall, too few staff has a big impact

A young man peers out a window in a holding cell after arriving at the intake unit at Alameda County Juvenile Hall.
A young man peers out a window in a holding cell after arriving at the intake unit at Alameda County Juvenile Hall.
Brett Myers/Youth Radio

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Across the country, there are efforts to close outdated and dangerous juvenile detention centers. But even in places with so-called model juvenile halls, counties often struggle to meet the minimum standards.

A juvenile hall in San Leandro, Calif., is one such detention center that's generally well regarded but faces some major challenges. Built in 2007, it's part of a $176 million juvenile justice complex with a detention facility, courtrooms and law offices.

"This is essentially where all of the people who do the heavy lifting come in," says Christian Muñoz, the juvenile hall's superintendent. But Munoz has trouble keeping the facility staffed.

"We survive on overtime, it's that bad," he says.

At the same time, the juvenile headcount here is the lowest it's been in five years. Still, overtime for guards is more than double what it was five years ago.

There are a lot of reasons for the staffing shortage: guards retiring, moving over to the adult system or filing for workers comp. Across the state, hiring into the juvenile system is a challenge. Background checks often eliminate candidates because of past criminal activity or even for having stains on their credit history.

"It's difficult to run a lemonade stand like that," Muñoz says.

'Things happen'

Unit 1 is two stories high with 15 cells on each level. Three guards shuffle kids back and forth from their cells to the showers, and they're doing room checks looking for contraband.

There's a commotion. A teen named Rudy is yelling. He just returned to his cell to discover the cookies and snacks he had stashed away were confiscated. As punishment for having food in his cell, he got docked 15 minutes of rec time, and he's upset, refusing to go back inside. Bonnie Lacy is one of the guards working Unit 1. She walks towards Rudy, making eye contact, and calmly requests that he do the "15 minutes for me." With that, Rudy turns around, steps into his cell and closes the door.

The superintendent and several guards say they prefer to talk through conflicts like this with kids. But incidents can escalate quickly.

According to county records obtained by Youth Radio, guards used pepper spray 147 times last year. The kicker: 90 percent of state-run juvenile correctional agencies don't allow guards to carry pepper spray. But here, with guards working an average of 30 hours of overtime per week, there has been an increase in the use of force on juvenile inmates — like guards performing takedowns or handcuffing inmates. The department calls these acts "use of physical and mechanical restraints" and that number nearly tripled in the last five years.

Supervisor Ray Colon has been working for Alameda County Juvenile Hall for 25 years.

"You've got a couple of staff watching a number of kids and things happen," he says.

During waking hours the state mandates a minimum of one guard for every 10 kids in detention.

When they're short on guards, supervisors sometimes run what they call split recs — basically dividing recreation, exercise and dinner time in half. Fifteen kids come out while the other 15 remain in their cells.

"The kids don't always get the services they should get because we're running short. They spend more time in their room, which is unfortunate, but it's the reality of not having the staff to complete the duties we need to do," Colon says.

Malik, 18, spent more than four months incarcerated in Alameda County Juvenile Hall. He says when young people are locked in their cells, tensions flare.

"Man, more fights, more attitudes. Kicking and banging, it's just angry. They want to be out of their rooms. That's why I used to kick and bang," he says. "If I know that I have a guaranteed hour of PE each day no matter what, I'm going to be angry if I can't get that."

While conditions for both the inmates and the guards have gone down, the costs have not. On average, there are only about 150 kids at Alameda County Juvenile Hall at any given time, and it costs $48 million a year to detain them.

This story was produced by Youth Radio, part of their juvenile justice series, Unlocked.