Will COVID-19 Shut Down Youth Prisons for Good?

Will COVID-19 Shut Down Youth Prisons for Good? (A 17-year old girl in hand-cuffs is questioned February 2, 2013 by a vice squad policeman with the Los Angeles Police Department. (Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images))

New York City, NYGlitchy Wi-Fi and less than ideal quarantine situations bring a whole new set of challenges for those of us with loved ones involved in the juvenile justice system. But the pandemic has also sparked criminal justice reforms in places like California, specifically addressing youth incarceration. We took a look at what's happening around the country, as coronavirus brings new rounds of advocacy and reforms.

A Push for Early Release and Limited Intake of Juveniles in Custody

In a nationwide fight, led by the Youth First Initiative, youth justice organizations in over 35 states have demanded the release of incarcerated youth due to fears of COVID-19 spreading amongst inmates. This fear led some advocates, such as the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in Houston to file a lawsuit calling out conditions inside the detention center as dangerous and unconstitutional since youth susceptible to COVID exposure are held in their rooms for over 23 hours every day. The lockdown of juveniles was reversed soon thereafter. The Houston Chronicle covered the case, and the resulting changes to isolation policies after the lawsuit.

There have been outbreaks in youth detention centers across the country, according to national and local news outlets. In April, The Washington Post reported Louisiana had more infected incarcerated youth than any of the 22 states where data was available. In places like Chicago's Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where outbreaks have made headlines, there have been ongoing hearings since March for the release of detained youth to prevent COVID-19, according to the Chicago Tribune. 

Several states have begun either releasing youth inmates or limiting the intake/transfer of inmates. On March 24, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order  that directed the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to temporarily halt the intake and/or transfer of inmates and youth into California’s four youth correctional facilities for 40 days. On April 14, Newsom issued another executive order directing that discharge and reentry hearings be held via videoconference to limit juveniles' exposure to COVID-19.

Video Visitation

Since in-person visits are considered a safety hazard for visitors and inmates, some families are faced with being completely cut off from their incarcerated children, only seeing them through video screens. Several states such as Alaska and Virginia have already opted to suspend visitation from family members, while offering families resources for other communication such as video visitation. However, video capabilities are not available everywhere and similar to distance-learning setups, it has its own issues.

For example, in Florida, Spectrum’s Bay News 9 reported that a mother has to pay $2.95 to video call her son for 15 minutes, sometimes needing to book in advance to secure a spot. She said that each time, the video calls have difficulty connecting and their screens cut out. “I can’t tell you one full visit,” she told Spectrum News, “that has gone without any hiccups.”

Free Phone Calls

The cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated family members adds up quickly for people on a tight budget. According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s 2018 Phone Rates Survey, some rates can go for as low as $3.15 every 15 minutes at San Joaquin County Juvenile Detention or some as high as $13.45 for the same 15 minutes at Trinity County Probation. 

Lowering or ending phone call charges has been a major push from advocacy organizations for years, but now this issue is exacerbated as families struggle to make ends meet as the country grapples with high unemployment.

“Low-income families of color are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration, and now by COVID-19,” Dominique D. Nong, senior policy associate at Children’s Defense Fund in California, who supports eliminating phone charges, told YR Media in an email interview. “Any charges for phone calls, even if lowered, prevent true and sufficient access to phone calls that nurture and maintain meaningful connections with loved ones — connections critical to the well-being of incarcerated individuals and their families, and to their positive development and ‘rehabilitation.’ ”

Closing Youth Prisons

California Governor Newsom announced in a revised spending plan in May that his state’s juvenile incarceration system will dissolve completely by 2023, as outlined in an article by Mic.

The move to dissolve the state's juvenile justice system is one criminal justice advocates in California have wanted for years.

The Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) will close in two phases, the first of which will halt the entrance of any new youth detainees starting this upcoming January, 2021. By 2023, the four operational state-run facilities will be closed. Those under 18 will be in county-run facilities and those over 18 will be transferred to adult facilities. 

For more of YR Media’s coverage of justice issues, click here.

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