Recently, Voice of OC ran a news story on a “melee” at Orange County Juvenile Hall that injured at least one staff, putting her in the hospital. I would dispute the use of the word “melee” and substitute the word “riot.”

Regardless of the fact that the fight only lasted a few minutes, the very real potential for a full-scale riot was there. The unit where the fight occurred is physically connected to another unit and there are six units immediately connected to this unit that could have gone out of control.

There were minors out of their cells in each of these units that could have taken this to the extreme but, fortunately due to staff intervention, did not before the institution was placed on lockdown.

A comment on the safety of deputy juvenile correctional officers (the correct term for peace officer line staff working in the institutions). Most of these employees go through a six-week “academy” of sorts. They learn the basics of control, the paperwork that must be done, and the rudiments of the basic approved restraint holds that may be used to control combative minors. They also receive training on the use of pepper spray and handcuffing techniques as well as basic first aid. What may be surprising is most of these men and women have college degrees.

These men and women will not tell you they place their lives on the line every day while, at the same time, acting as parent and guardian for the youth in custody who, by and large, are charged with serious felonies such as murder, rape and arson. They will not tell you of the immense pride they have in their jobs even though they understand the department thinks of them as second-class employees.

Look at a deputy juvenile correctional officer and you may see someone who looks like they work in an office or an outdoor job. Most of them dress down for their shift. Spend a half-hour in their unit watching them handle the minors in their care and you will not doubt their professionalism.

A DJCO, as they are called, is then given a few days of (on-the-job training) and sent into the units. Almost all of them start on the night shift, when most minors are sleeping. Fortunately, this allows them the time to get acquainted with the institution before they are promoted to dayshift.

It is a sad fact that due to management making nearly all of their recent cuts in the institutional force, most of the DJCOs who work nights are actually experienced day-shift staffers.

The department’s statement that Juvenile Hall was fully staffed at the time of the incident is laughable. By their own admission, they have laid off 150 staff. They claim that the layoffs were due to closing one camp for older juveniles, one unit at a drug treatment facility and one entire half of another camp, YLA. Also closed were two units at Juvenile Hall, leaving them with 44 fewer beds.

Yet, while the population for Juvenile Hall was supposed to be reduced to less than 300 last year, the population today hovers at around 400. How are they managing to keep the extra minors housed? Smoke and mirrors, of course.

Just prior to the fight, instructions were sent down to maximize usage of bed space. In one case, that meant housing a sex offender minor in the psych unit in order to allow 3 minors to be housed in his cell in the sex offender unit. The minor sent out was not a psych candidate and had no other legitimate reason to be in the unit.

The minors sent to the sex offender unit were also “sleepers” as well. That is, they do not fit the program profile (sex offenders) and are sent there to fill bed space. This is not a new process, but it was being used to shift minors around so that the department would remain in compliance with Corrections Standards Authority.

In the unit where the fight occurred, there were 30 minors housed in a unit designed to house two-thirds that number. There was no concern for the minors’ or staffers’ safety in these moves. The only concern was to maintain compliance at any cost.

We see the cost now.

The fight, which, contrary to department spokesman Robert Rangel’s assertions, was gang related, created a sense of havoc and panic for staffers and minors. After minimizing the aspects of the fight, the department also failed to inform the public that several serial fights occurred in the days after. One of these altercations was in a high-security unit where minors are let out in small groups, and the unit is supposedly highly staffed.

In fact there were so many altercations, near altercations and removals from school that the institution was again placed on lockdown status. Only this time, the lockdown status was “modified” to allow for in-unit school. Well, I suppose that is a bit safer. At least it would not be as far to escort a minor to his or her cell.

Each time the institution was placed on a “modified” lockdown status, the status was lifted shortly after school so that minors would not be penalized with loss of meals and other free time activities. Maximizing time out of their cells is a priority for probation management. It frequently comes at the cost of staff safety.

Contrary to some comments regarding the Orange County Employees Association, the PSU and PSMU called for an emergency meeting with the CEO. In fact, several meetings have been held, and Nick Berardino, who inadvertently referred to institution staffers as probation officers, has been working nonstop to get the county and this department to stop playing with people’s lives. They continue to meet and, hopefully, the safety issues can be addressed before another staffer is hurt.

What can be done? First, the chief probation officer opened the door to the Office of Independent Review to allow a look at their Internal Affairs process. Perhaps he should expand that to include looking at institutional safety issues from an unbiased viewpoint.

He should certainly continue his dialogue with the PSU and PSMU, both of whom have the interests of officer safety and morale at heart. Perhaps the union’s past call for individual equipment issues can be expanded.

Certainly, the chief should also consider a new choice for spokesperson as the current person in that position holds little credibility with line staff.

His recent comments minimizing the riot and injuries have proven to be incorrect at best; at worst, they are outright lies.

What will happen to the line staff in Juvenile Hall? Life will go on. Many of them still discuss this and what had happened. They discuss union involvement, and many, by their comments, are happy with neither the union nor the department.

One thing is for sure, the staff will survive, and they will continue to do the same professional job they always have, protecting the public from real criminals and trying to make decent citizens of the children with whose care they are charged.

I hope you will stay safe.

Jeff Gallagher.

Jeff Gallagher is an OCEA board member and deputy juvenile correctional officer.

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