Riots and fear as COVID-19 hits U.S. juvenile centers
Currently, 150 juveniles and 283 staff members at facilities nationwide have tested positive for the novel coronavirus
By Margie Mason and Robin McDowell
BRIDGE CITY, La. — Frustrations had been building inside juvenile detention centers nationwide as the number of coronavirus cases continued to climb. So when Nicole Hingle got the call from her 17-year-old son, Jace, she was not surprised. He told her nearly 40 kids had rioted inside the Bridge City facility in Louisiana where he is detained. More than a dozen youths escaped from another Louisiana lockup this month.
“It’s a real mess, everything is destroyed,” the teen told his mother, adding that youth were kicking down doors and one staff member was injured.
Due to coronavirus lockdowns, it’s been more than two months since Hingle has been able to visit her son. She accused administrators of keeping her in the dark as the number of positive coronavirus cases in Bridge City climbed to 10. She’s grown upset by the lack of a clear plan to protect or release those held inside.
As more and more state and local officials announce the release of thousands of at-risk inmates from the nation’s adult jails and prisons, parents along with children rights’ groups and criminal justice experts say vulnerable youths should be allowed to serve their time at home. But demands for large-scale releases have been largely ignored, in part because decisions are often carried out county by county, with judges reviewing juvenile cases individually.
Such legal hurdles have resulted in some kids with symptoms being thrown into isolation for 23 hours a day, in what amounts to solitary confinement, according to relatives and youth advocates. They say many have been cut off from programs, counselors and school. Some have not been issued masks, social distancing is nearly impossible and they have limited access to phones. In some states, authorities have been shuttling kids between facilities, trying to make sure sick and healthy young people are kept apart.
Growing fears and frustrations have led to violence and mayhem not just in Louisiana, but at juvenile centers in other coronavirus hot spots such as New York. Sheriff’s deputies responded to a facility in Portland, Oregon, this month after a “disturbance” broke out, but no injuries were reported.
“If this storm is coming in your direction, don’t wait until you have 100 mile-an-hour winds to put the boards up on the windows,” Vincent Schiraldi, co-director at Columbia University Justice Lab and a former correctional administrator, warned other juvenile facilities nationwide. “Deal with it now.”
As of Sunday, 150 juveniles and 283 staff at facilities nationwide had tested positive for COVID-19, according to an unofficial log kept by Josh Rovner at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit The Sentencing Project, though he believes the real number is likely “much higher.”
New York is one of the few cities that operates two juvenile facilities. At the first sign of illness there, the city agency that oversees the sites put healthy kids at the Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brooklyn and moved the infected residents to the Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx. A fight that broke out there two weeks ago was only quieted after dozens of police were deployed.
The city’s Administration for Children’s Services said some staff suffered minor injuries, including one who needed offsite medical treatment.
A similar situation occurred at two branches of the Swanson Center for Youth in Louisiana, where 17 kids have tested positive. It was reserving one facility for healthy kids and another for the infected. Tensions built as kids were transferred back and forth. More than a dozen youth briefly escaped in two separate incidents, according to a statement from the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice
On Monday, officials in Tennessee said 26 youths tested positive at Memphis Center for Success and Independence after mass testing was conducted.
However, many facilities only test those with symptoms. And some juvenile justice agencies, citing privacy concerns, have been slow to release even basic information, including the number of infected.
The same number have tested positive in Virginia at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center outside Richmond. Valerie Boykin, director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, said parents and loved ones are kept informed in a timely manner.
But Rachael Deane of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Just Children Program accused the department of not providing proper medical care to youth at the facility. She said in a letter that a client with symptoms was not tested and another whose test came back positive was never examined by a doctor. She added that youths were being kept in their rooms for at least 23 hours a day and that the department was not communicating with parents when their kids became infected.
The coronavirus does not typically hit most young people hard, but it has been shown to attack anyone with underlying health problems. Locked-up children face much higher rates of asthma and other respiratory ailments along with substance abuse issues.
More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States — more than anywhere else in the world. The juvenile population behind bars has been decreasing over the past couple of decades and stood at around 43,000 in 2017, the last available count. Roughly 70% were accused of low-level crimes.
Nate Balis, of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, said while a new study shows a drop in the number of youths at local secure detention centers — where they are held until a court decides whether to confine them until their hearing or allow them to wait at home — many more could be released to home confinement to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Whether or not kids are being released has to do with who’s calling the shots and that is very different from state to state,” he said.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a petition earlier this month that would limit new admissions and allow for the immediate release of some youth already detained in order to prevent the spread of the virus in juvenile facilities.
Maryland’s Court of Appeals denied a similar petition but offered guidance to administrative judges, saying the health and well-being of the juveniles should be taken into consideration during the public health crisis.