Agustin Herrera described what it felt to be pepper sprayed during his time in Los Angeles County juvenile halls dating back to 2016.
“If somebody just put hot boiling, like, coffee onto your face and the only way you feel like you're going to get it out is by nearly scratching your eyeballs out. That's what it feels like,” he said.
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Now 21 years old, Herrera is a youth leader with the group Arts for Healing and Justice Network.
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He says he is frustrated that pepper spray continues to be deployed in the halls even though it was supposed to be phased out years ago.
Herrera acknowledged fights and the environment in the halls can be intense and dangerous.
“They feel like that's the way to stop the fight, but I feel like in that sense, you're just more damaging and traumatizing the kid,” Herrera said.
The continued use of pepper spray is among the reasons the Board of State and Community Corrections has found Central and Barry J. Nidorf juvenile halls, “unsuitable” for youth, in February 2021 and again in June 2022, although the Probation department says the issues were later corrected.
This month, the I-Team also reported on the proliferation of illegal drugs coming into the halls and the death of an 18-year old from an apparent drug overdose. The board Tuesday is expected to recommend the halls close , according to its agenda of Tuesday's meeting.
Sean Garcia-Leys is a civil rights attorney who serves on the Los Angeles County Probation Oversight Commission and spoke to NBC4 as the co-director of The Peace and Justice Law Center.
“The board has a legal duty to issue a notice to close down the halls unless the halls can fix literally all of the problems in 60 days, which nobody believes they can do because they don't have the staff to do it,” Garcia-Leys said.
He also points to an overwhelmed and under-supported staff as the county transitions into a rehabilitation-centered model for the halls.
“If they're not shut down by end of July, we will be bringing more legal actions to force that to happen,” he said.
“The Probation Department has the responsibility of making recommendations for who to release and who not to. And the probation could recommend that these young people go home, the majority of them,” Garcia-Leys said, adding that most of the youth inside the county juvenile halls are pre-adjudicated youth, which means they are accused and charged, but not found by a judge to have committed a crime.
The LA County Probation Department has proposed a revised plan that would change the way the halls operate now, and transfer some of the youth to a renovated Los Padrinos campus, adding in an email to the I-Team, in part: “...while we can accomplish this before the July 23 deadline recommended by the BSCC staff, we will be asking the BSCC board for additional time to make sure we can transfer youth, staff, programs and services to Los Padrinos in a way that avoids chaos and undue hardship on our youth and their families...”
If the BSCC decides to close the two halls on Tuesday, they say, the county will have 60 days to shut them down and relocate the more than 300 youth currently inside.