Fire at L.A. Juvenile Hall Signals Wider Issue for Youth Lockups

March 12, 2007

By Susan McRae  |  The San Francisco Daily Journal  —  

LOS ANGELES – Despite federal monitoring of Los Angeles County's three juvenile halls, critics say a recent fire that sent one youth to the hospital in critical condition reveals some disturbing oversights.

In its report, city fire officials noted that 14 of the 18 locked living units at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, including the unit where the blaze occurred, are without fire sprinklers. The facility, built in 1965, has an average daily population of 600 youths.

Similar findings were made at the other two facilities.
At Central Juvenile Hall, the county's oldest juvenile hall built in 1912, with a population of 546 youths, 12 of the 19 units have sprinklers.

At Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, built in 1957, with a population 594, only 5 of the 16 living units have sprinklers.
Probation officials said most of the units were built or retrofitted before 1990, when the building code changed to require sprinklers installed in all locked-down facilities, such as jails and prisons.

Additionally, an exception under the state "Minimum Standards for Local, Juvenile Facilities," Title 24, exempts the older units from having to comply with the new standards, provided the units met the standards in effect at the time they were constructed.
All juvenile housing units built or retrofitted after 1990, however, do have sprinkler systems, Dennis Carroll, chief of Los Angeles County Probation Department's Detention Service Bureau, said.
Some juvenile advocates feel that is not enough.

"There are some things that you shouldn't grandfather away," Sue Burrell, a lawyer at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, said of the exception made for older buildings.

"If our state enforcement system allows this, it needs to be changed," she said. "It points to a serious problem in oversight."
Sara Norman, a lawyer at the Prison Law Center at San Quentin, which is suing the state Corrections Standards Authority over its failure to meet minimum health and safety standards in adult and juvenile jails and prisons, said the problems are statewide.

"There are a lot of old, crumbling juvenile hall buildings all over the state, and not only are they not safe, but often they are really foul places," Norman said. "They are dirty, peeling paint, in poor repair, and kids cannot be rehabilitated under those conditions."

The Prison Law Center has lawsuits pending against juvenile halls in Sacramento, Alameda, Fresno and San Diego counties. It didn't sue Los Angeles County, she said, because the feds got there first.

As a result of a 2000 lawsuit over poor health and safety conditions, the county entered into a settlement with the Justice Department in which the federal agency oversees a series of improvements.

In its latest report, released November 2006, the department's monitors address fire safety, but do not mention sprinklers. It focuses on smoke and heat detectors and fire drills.

In the past two decades, building codes, including those in California, have increasingly required sprinklers throughout buildings for life safety, especially those structures where rapid evacuation is difficult, according to the National Fire Sprinklers Association.

The cost of a complete sprinkler system depends on many factors, including the type of building and construction, the association said.

New construction systems usually run from $1 to $1.50 a square foot, less than the cost of carpeting. Retrofit installations in existing buildings will cost about 50 percent more than for new construction, the association says.

But the trade-off can be worth it in terms of saved lives and property, the association points out. A study the group did for the years 1971 to 1975 found that 20 lives are lost to fire each year in this country in buildings with sprinklers, compared to 4,000 a year in buildings without sprinklers.

Additionally, the smoke produced as sprinklers extinguish a fire, is much less than would be produced if a fire were permitted to grow, the association notes.

The fire at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall occurred March 3 in building R-S, the unit that houses youth awaiting transfer to juvenile camp.

City fire officials reported it was deliberately set by a youth who used a cigarette lighter to set his bedding ablaze. A staff employee pulled the youth from his cell before firefighters arrived, the report stated.

Four probation employees suffered minor smoke inhalation, according to the report. Damage to the building was estimated at $15,000.