US: Calls grow to release detained youth amid coronavirus crisis

Advocates warn facilities not prepared for emergency, social distancing rules put young people’s mental health at risk.

Juvenile detention
This photo provided by the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in 2018 shows part of the interior of the building in Staunton, Virginia [File: Handout/Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center/AP Photo]

Los Angeles, California – As calls grow for the release of inmates in prisons across the United States due to the coronavirus pandemic, lawyers and advocates are pressing for the broad release of young people held in juvenile detention facilities, as well.

“As many young people that can go home right now, should go home,” said Zoe Rawson, a member of the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, which is part of a California coalition demanding the immediate release of detained youth.

Many said they are concerned that these facilities are not prepared to safeguard the thousands of incarcerated young people, and measures taken inside the facilities put the young people’s mental health at risk.

In Los Angeles (LA) County, home to the largest probation department in the nation, advocates say that although some social distancing measures have been implemented, they worry detained young people continue to share communal meals, watch movies together and sleep in dense quarters.

LA County probation authorities on March 26 formally instructed facilities to screen all visitors for symptoms, implement deep cleaning, isolate any juveniles who present symptoms and other measures to try to keep the coronavirus from spreading. The county suspended family visitation and classes and arts programmes earlier last month.

Two probation employees at Barry J Nidorf Juvenile Hall in LA have tested positive for the coronavirus and 40 young detainees have been placed in quarantine. There are 192 youths at the juvenile hall.

That news added to worries that the virus, known to be devastating in enclosed spaces like nursing homes, will spread rapidly in juvenile facilities.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has issued an order to temporarily halt adding youths to state-run juvenile detention facilities, known as halls and camps. 

Public defenders, the district attorney’s office, and the Probation Department, which runs the juvenile detention centres, are reviewing every young person’s case to see if there is an immediate opportunity for release through individual court hearings. The overall population in LA County juvenile detention centres has been reduced by about 30 percent in the last three weeks, according to LA County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia.

But public defenders said they are calling for the broader release of youths. “Right now, we are observing very limited if any onsite services in our juvenile camps. Youth are bored, isolated from family, and living in communal spaces without access to adequate protective equipment, and in some cases, without frequent access to soap and water. This is a crucial concern for us, as we’re sure it is for the families of these youth,” Garcia told Al Jazeera in an email.

A California coalition of more than four dozen organisations has demanded that youths detained on misdemeanour and low-level felony arrests and bench warrants be immediately released. As of Monday, there were 401 youths detained in halls and 252 in camps across LA County.

Nationwide demands

The demands have been echoed nationwide, with youth advocates in 33 states calling on governors and juvenile justice administrators to release all young people who have coronavirus symptoms or have chronic illnesses in addition to halting new admissions to protect youths from the spread of the virus.

A New York City-based law firm filed a lawsuit against the city’s child welfare chief for the immediate release of young people held, arguing that their detention “constitutes deliberate indifference to the risk of serious medical harm”.

At least three juveniles in Louisiana state custody and one teenager in the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center in Houston, Texas, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to local media. 

Back in Los Angeles County, probation officials told Al Jazeera that as of Monday, there were currently no youths in LA County Probation custody suspected of having the COVID-19 virus. Those currently in quarantine may have been exposed to the virus, but are not presenting symptoms, officials said.

They said they have developed plans to minimise the risks related to the spread of the coronavirus. Public health signage has been posted outside each facility and inside the living units, restrooms, kitchen and staff sleeping quarters and instructed facilities to conduct additional deep-cleaning efforts in “high-traffic, high-volume areas”, including healthcare facilities.

The county has also implemented changes to operations in juvenile facilities in order to screen and test people entering the facilities, including staff.

Hilda Solis, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said the county is hoping to reduce crowding in juvenile facilities and it is seeking to increase access to social distancing and increased hygiene practices. “Without a vaccine, physical distancing is our most effective tool in containing the spread of COVID-19,” Solis told Al Jazeera in a statement.

County public health officials who have visited the detention centres told Al Jazeera that “facilities have the capacity to socially distance the youth and isolate them upon becoming symptomatic.”

But Kim Cullen, a primary care physician in Colorado who helped pen an open letter to governors and probation officials by concerned doctors, said social distancing in juvenile facilities is “nearly impossible”.

“If the ability to put in place the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines is not obtainable in a carceral setting then it is not an appropriate setting for someone to be in, and there needs to be another plan,” she told Al Jazeera.

‘Grave threat to mental health’

Additionally, advocates are worried about what effects social distancing and visitation cancellations will have on the mental health of the incarcerated young people.

When Los Angeles defence lawyer Jerod Gunsberg spoke to a young man in a juvenile facility two weeks ago, the young man told him that he has just learned about the scope of the pandemic thanks to a phone call with his mother a few days prior.

“He didn’t understand that everything on the outside was locked down,” Gunsberg said.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has acknowledged that the pandemic poses a threat to mental health, especially to children and teenagers. It has provided parents and caregivers strategies to help young people cope with stress, encouraging them to give children regular opportunities to express their feelings. Children should receive appropriate alternative care if they are separated from families and the CDC has said they should be given twice-daily scheduled phone or video calls.

Juvenile facilities throughout the country have cancelled family visits, prompting advocates to ask probation officials to grant youths unlimited phone calls and video conferencing.

“We can only imagine that as we see the crisis unfolds every day and seek information, the anxiety of not really knowing or feeling this uncertainty is only amplified inside,” said Patricia Soung, youth justice policy director and a senior staff attorney at the Children’s Defense Fund.

In a brief submitted by lawyers in Pennsylvania and California seeking the release of incarcerated youths, Craig Haney, a professor of psychology and expert in incarceration and mental health, said juvenile facilities are ill-equipped to handle the crisis.

“Most lack the capacity to provide more than minimal emergency mental health or medical care. Yet, the demand for such services in this crisis will grow, stretching already scarce treatment resources even further,” said Haney. “The continued detention and confinement of children during the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a grave threat to their physical and mental health.”

There is also a growing fear that institutions might revert to the use of solitary confinement in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus considering limited options to implement social distancing.

“Using something like solitary to reduce the spread of a disease is incredibly harmful. Solitary confinement can lead to suicidality, death in youth and others,” said Cullen.

Source: Al Jazeera