The Threat of a Coronavirus Outbreak in Juvenile Detention

America’s juvenile detention centers are no place to be during a pandemic, and we need to let incarcerated youth out.

While much of the rest of the nation has shut down in compliance with state-wide stay-at-home orders, the social distancing guidelines recommended to curb the spread of the coronavirus are virtually impossible to enforce in overcrowded correctional facilities. A lack of access to soap and handwashing, coupled with a deficient prison healthcare system, render the 44,000 juveniles imprisoned daily nationwide especially prone to the disease.

Youth regularly interact with correctional staff, who bring with them the contaminants of the outside world; in other cases, facilities are drastically understaffed, with officers using sick days to reduce their exposure.

Children involved in the juvenile justice system are also disproportionately more likely to have pre-existing medical conditions, including asthma and immunodeficiency, that increase their risk of infection. In a juvenile detention center in Virginia, at least 25 youth had tested positive by April 17. Louisiana, Minnesota, Delaware, New York, Texas, and Connecticut have also reported cases of the virus among youth and staff.

Many detention centers have suspended visitors, leaving juvenile offenders isolated from their parents in a time of uncertainty and hopelessness. Their parents fear that if their children become infected with the increasingly prevalent coronavirus while behind bars, they may never see them again.

The current pandemic response in some facilities is locking children in their rooms for over 23 hours a day. As a result, this prolonged solitary confinement provokes psychological distress and suicidal thoughts. The youngest are thirteen, most already scarred by a childhood defined by abuse, trauma, and neglect. Important educational and rehabilitative programs have been interrupted, losses that hamper re-entry and specifically harm those with cognitive or intellectual disabilities, who constitute almost 48% of Washington State’s residential delinquent youth.

Even more alarmingly, the racial disparities that have long plagued the juvenile justice system further disprove the idea that coronavirus is in any sense a great equalizer, as low-income and minority populations will undoubtedly be hit hardest by a jail-wide pandemic. “When white America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia,” said Steven Brown, a research associate for the Urban Institute, a testament to the ability of a public health emergency to compound existing injustice. In California, Latino and black youth represent 50 and 36 percent of the system, respectively, meaning that COVID-19 death tolls will include mostly people of color.

In short, juvenile detention centers have grown to be major hotbeds for disease transmission. Failure to take immediate action could result in potentially devastating consequences, demanding that any approach to containing the spread of coronavirus encompass prison pandemic safety. Doctors, lawyers, civil rights activists, and probation officers have advocated for the immediate release of vulnerable youth charged with low-level offenses along with a temporary reduction in admission to detention facilities.

But with the onus entirely on individual states to make decisions about the future of these youth, reactions to the issue have been varied. California, for example, undertook a measure to curtail new admissions to facilities, but Nebraska has abstained from issuing a blanket policy. Courts in Maryland and Pennsylvania have denied mass release petitions, including those held for non-violent crimes or violations of probation. The city of Chicago pushed to accelerate emergency hearings for petitioning youth. Some jurisdictions, like Nebraska, have denied the prospect of a mass release by arguing that it undermines the fundamentally individualized approach that characterizes juvenile justice.

However, a significant number of detainees are trapped in the system for minor crimes like drug possession or for the simple inability to afford court fees for a proper trial. Even more reoffend within a few years, suggesting that documented systemic outcomes stray far from the intended goal to rehabilitate. Community-based interventions, including electronic monitoring, can be readily implemented with youth at home, allowing them to reunite with their families, producing more favorable long-term recidivism rates, and staving off an outbreak — especially since low-risk offenders, who are already needlessly incarcerated far too often, may otherwise be receiving a death sentence in jail.

We can no longer afford to overlook the burgeoning public health crisis at hand and the long-standing inequalities it threatens to exacerbate. In the context of a greater shift away from mass incarceration, the coronavirus pandemic in and of itself should be a wake-up call: a grave reminder that anything short of a mass release could trigger a fatal catastrophe within an institution that already does more to harm than benefit those it ensnares.

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