Maisha was 16 years old when an officer inside Los Angeles juvenile hall began to take interest in her. Over time it progressed to the point where the officer would grab her. She tried to avoid being alone with him, but the sexual assaults escalated. Maisha, who was incarcerated in 1997, knew the assaults were happening to other girls, but she never considered reporting it, recalling that, “If you tell on staff, then the other staff are going to treat you wrong and say you’re lying. I wouldn’t have told on nobody." Now 42, Maisha is speaking up for the first time about the abuse she says she endured while imprisoned in the nation's largest juvenile system. She is far from alone, reports The Guardian. Nearly 300 people have come forward in a lawsuit against Los Angeles County, detailing claims of sexual abuse by officers in juvenile jails, between 1972 and 2018. The case paints a disturbing picture of systemic misconduct and violence against multiple generations of children in the most vulnerable circumstances, some as young as 10 and 11. Staff sexually violated children in their cells, bathrooms, hallways, medical areas, solitary confinement and throughout more than a dozen boys and girls’ detention halls, the suit says. Some victims were handcuffed and intimidated into silence and submission. Despite the volume of testimony from decades past, scandals over the last two years suggest that the mistreatment and neglect of children behind bars is not a historical problem, and in fact worsening.
Maisha was jailed amid a “tough on crime” crackdown in the 1990s and the rise of the racist “superpredator” myth, which led the U.S. dramatically to increase its imprisonment of Black youth. By 2001, more than 4,000 were housed in L.A. juvenile halls and camps, which were significantly over capacity. One woman, who asked to only use her last name Jones, said she wasn’t even a teenager when she was sent to juvenile hall in the early 90s after getting in a fight. “It was scary. It was a whole environment I wasn’t used to, with these strangers and adults cursing you out and mistreating you. I felt like I was at a dog shelter,” she said. Three recent lawsuits have outlined decades of sexual abuse in L.A. juvenile facilities, including two cases on behalf of 70 women and the most current suit on behalf of 279 people, including Maisha and Jones. The suit alleges that some victims were targeted by multiple officers, and that some officers were serial predators. The juvenile hall network has shrunk considerably since Maisha and Jones were jailed, with roughly 500 youth now locked up on any given day across two facilities, nearly all of them Black or Latino. The state agency responsible for monitoring jail conditions found in 2021 that L.A. County’s juvenile facilities were “unsuitable” for confining youth.