As Coronavirus Spreads Among Juvenile Justice Facilities, Activists Are Calling For Their Release

'Our first and most strident public health intervention must be to get people out'

Every weekday morning, the boys wake up at 7 a.m. in their shared, open-floor rooms at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility in Oregon. Usually, they’d get ready for their day and walk to the nearby six-room school, where they would join about 65 other residents for class. At the end of the day, they'd go back to their units, have dinner together, and play outside. By 9 p.m., they’d be in bed.

But since the novel coronavirus swept across the country, in-person school is no longer in session; not as many volunteers are going into the facility; and the kids, who are all between the ages of 12 and 24, aren’t allowed to hang out with boys in other units.

“They feel like they don't have as much control,” Ken Jerin, the superintendent of the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility told MTV News. “At home, I have more freedom to do what I need to do, but I can also do things to help protect myself. [These kids are] having to rely on other people to do that for them. And they're also in an environment where they're around 18, 20 other people plus the staff.”

They’re having class on Zoom, and they’re still doing recreational activities, but only with the boys in their unit, Jerin said. The staff deeply cleans everything the kids touched as the boys move between each activity and from room to room. On the weekends, they would normally attend in-person religious services or meet with visiting loved ones; they now Skype in. Jerin and his team are doing their best to keep the kids healthy and safe, but they’re doing so with limited means — and there are few ways to fully protect the boys from the virus’s spread.

And that's precisely why many activists believe the safest way to prevent spread is to release “as many people as we possibly can,” Patricia Soung, the director of youth justice policy and a senior staff attorney for the Children's Defense Fund-California, told MTV News.

For many incarcerated youth, the routines that filled their days are crucial resources in an extremely destabilizing environment. “When young people are in detention centers or locked up, one of the biggest challenges is for the day to be filled with meaningful education and activities,” Nate Balis, the director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, told MTV News. “Already, that's a challenge. So now if the schools are not in operation, if there aren't outside programs that are coming in, if families can't visit, you're taking out the very things that create some sense of purpose within the facilities for young people, some sense of direction that they have while they're there. It's very dangerous.”

There are about 16,000 children in detention centers in the United States, although there isn’t an official annual governmental count, NBC News reports. They’re disproportionately children of color, and they are held in the 1,772 juvenile justice facilities nationwide, which include detention centers, shelters, diagnostic centers, group homes, ranch/wilderness camps, long-term secure facilities, and residential treatment centers, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. And fewer than 30 percent of incarcerated youth nationwide have been accused of or adjudicated for a violent offense — meaning the vast majority of kids being held in these facilities are non-violent offenders or youth who haven’t yet been found guilty of anything yet, according to Joshua Rovner, a senior advocacy associate at the Sentencing Project. This has activists wondering why kids are being forced to stay in places that are poorly designed to handle medical outbreaks.

While each facility is dealing with the impact of COVID-19 differently, most are feeling the effects of the novel coronavirus, whether they have cases in their facilities or not. As NBC News points out, juvenile detention facilities nationwide are closing in-person family visits, classes are being replaced with packets, and social workers and religious staff aren’t allowed to visit in-person. Incarcerated youth are afraid not just of getting the virus themselves, but also of their families contracting it.

There’s no official count of how many youth or staff in juvenile justice facilities have contracted the virus, but as of Wednesday (April 8), at least 43 youths and 55 adults who work in juvenile facilities have tested positive, according to Rovner. Two adults have died. (The crisis isn't specific to juvenile facilities: Reuters reported on March 28 that at least 132 inmates and 104 staff members in New York City jails alone had tested positive for COVID-19.) The CDC has reported over 330,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S., but experts caution that this number is likely a drastic undercount due to the lack of testing.

“There's every reason to believe that the amount of testing [in juvenile justice facilities] is completely inadequate,” Rovner said of the data he’s collected via media reports. “We know that the testing is inadequate for the general population, and everything that happens in the juvenile justice system tells us that these are some of the forgotten kids in this country. ... There are surely a lot more positive diagnoses that we just don't know about because the testing hasn't taken place yet.”

This comes as a new analysis from the CDC shows that the virus can be just as dangerous for young people as it can be for older Americans, The Hill reported. As NBC News points out, children in the juvenile justice systems are more likely to have compromised immune systems, which can exacerbate their likelihood of contracting COVID-19 and having more serious complications.

“This will be, when it hits this system, an absolute nightmare,” Vincent Schiraldi, the co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab said during a press conference by the Youth First Initiative on COVID-19 and juvenile justice on March 30. “These places are built to do the exact opposite of physical and social distancing.”

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, each facility had its own method of treating sick kids. At Rogue Valley, a kid who feels ill will visit one of the nurses on site, who will assess them. “Our practice in the past has always been if a youth has a fever or has signs and symptoms of being sick, we typically can isolate them from the other youth in a smaller room,” Jerin said. “We just kind of stepped up that process with the COVID-19 going around, that we're much stricter about that. If a kid is feeling sick, we're going to move him into a single room until the signs go away, or they feel better. Then they come out.”

That room is made of concrete, with a bunk, a toilet, and a sink, and serves two purposes: isolation if the kid is sick, and isolation if they’re in trouble. For the former, staff moves the kid’s mattress and bedding into the room, and they are allowed to have their books, radio, mail, and other personal items with them. “If somebody is in trouble or they're being dangerous, we kind of limit the items that they have inside there,” Jerin said. “So if a kid is on a sick day, they have all their comforts and stuff because we're not concerned about them using them against anybody else or harming themselves.”

But activists argue that putting a kid in isolation will only deter them from seeking help if they fall ill. “Solitary confinement is a form of torture,” Rovner told MTV News. “People need to be around other human beings [and] interact with them. And there's every reason to believe that solitary confinement only exacerbates many of the issues that young people have. It is as traumatic an experience as incarceration itself.” That puts the people who manage the day-to-day operations of these facilities in a tough spot, especially given how the CDC guidelines dictate that people who test positive for COVID-19 need to be quarantined away from other people, if possible.

Meanwhile, the support at these juvenile facilities is diminishing now that social distancing orders in states across the country are forcing non-essential workers stay at home. Facility volunteers are no longer showing up, which further isolates kids whose resources have already been all but taken away from them by the state.

“The conditions under which [juvenile justice facilities] might have to implement social distancing — like suspending classes, programming, or therapy — looks like a lot more isolation and that butts up against other laws, like limits on solitary confinement,” Soung said. “The ability to provide any sort of ‘rehabilitation’ to youth under these conditions and in this crisis is not possible within the custodial setting.”

“I recognize that there are public safety concerns,” she added, “but that is why we have to consider every possible young person to [be] released.”

Homer Venters, a physician and epidemiologist who oversaw efforts to contain the outbreak of the H1N1 virus at Rikers Island jail in 2009, concurs. “Our first and most strident public health intervention must be to get people out,” he said during a press conference by the Youth First Initiative on COVID-19 and juvenile justice on March 30. “Release, release, release. As a physician who has managed outbreaks, that’s my recommendation.”

Experts and activists agree with Venters that the best way to truly prevent an outbreak in one of these facilities is to release youth who aren’t safety risks. Each day, public defenders nationwide are filing motions for states and counties to release kids. In New York City, the Legal Aid Society sued the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which is responsible for the 22 minors who are held in secure and nonsecure facilities within the five boroughs.

So far, civil rights groups in at least 22 states have asked officials to release incarcerated children. Because the federal government doesn’t have the power to order a mass release of incarcerated people in local facilities, the onus is up to states and local governments. California, Michigan, and Virginia paused the addition of children to state-run detention facilities, and other states are taking action, too. But even in states with halted admissions, kids can still be placed in county-run detention facilities.

“[Officials are] making decisions each day about young people who may be getting in trouble in their communities,” Balis said. “That's how it works all the time. So every county in this country has a responsibility to make sure that they're not using secure detention for kids during this crisis.”

In the meantime, the boys at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility are doing their best to get used to a further disrupted routine. But their reality is, as Jerin put it, “starting to sink in.”

“They're handling all the new technology pretty good and being patient,” he said. “Most of it is just the fear and anxiety around the coronavirus, just like anybody else out there.”

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