Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional healthcare experts warned that all the worst aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system — overcrowded, aging facilities lacking sanitary conditions and where medical care is, at best, sparse; too many older prisoners with underlying illnesses; regular flow of staff, guards, healthcare workers in and out of facilities — would leave detention facilities, and their surrounding communities, vulnerable to outbreaks. Despite those early warnings, even jails and prisons that believed they were well-prepared have seen a rapid spread of the virus. On a daily basis over the next several months, The Appeal will be examining the coronavirus crisis unfolding in U.S. prisons and jails, COVID-19’s impact on surrounding communities and how the virus might reshape our lives. Find daily updates here from Tuesday and Wednesday.
Amidst an increase in coronavirus cases in prisons and jails, there’s growing concern about juvenile detention centers.
According to the Sentencing Project, which has been tracking cases of COVID-19 in juvenile facilities, there’s been a steady uptick in cases since the first confirmed infection on March 25. As of June 3, more than 577 incarcerated young people have tested positive for COVID-19. Equally troubling is the number of staff who’ve tested positive: 648 staff as of June 4.
As the Sentencing Project’s Josh Rovner notes, “roughly 70 percent of incarcerated youth are held on non-violent offenses.”
A report published Wednesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the rate of young people placed into detention declined by 52 percent in March and April. “A decline in two months equal to one that took place over 13 years—a good sign,” the report notes.
“But while admissions dramatically slowed,” the report says, “so did the rate at which systems released young people.” Like many adult detention systems, there were “a burst of releases in March,” but not much since then. In April, the researchers found, “the rate of release of young people … dropped below its pre-COVID-19 level.”
“This left many young people still living in confinement without access to opportunities or connections, and potentially vulnerable to the virus.”
Of the children who remain in these facilities, more than half are black and nearly a quarter are Latinx.
“Local detention center directors essentially did a lot to divert kids out of facilities,” said Liz Ryan, president and CEO of Youth First, which has been calling on policymakers to release more children from detention centers. “But once a kid gets into a facility, they’re less likely to be removed.”
Ryan said too many juvenile court judges and policymakers think children are better off inside these facilities.
“But all the research and experience of young people and families says the opposite,” she said.
In many facilities, in-person visitation has been cancelled and there’s no alternatives for children to make meaningful contact with loved ones. Educational programming has been “completely disrupted and halted,” says Hernan Carvente Martinez, a strategist with Youth First.
“They’ve been effectively stripped of every single thing that gives them hope,” he said.
But some jurisdictions are decarcerating. In a May 21 op-ed published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Steven Teske, chief judge of the Juvenile Court in Clayton County, Georgia, writes that in March the Martha Glaze Youth Detention Center reduced its population from 15 young people to two.
None of the children who were released to their families have been re-arrested, Teske writes, “or in any other way made me regret the decision to send them home.”
Juvenile facilities, for the most part, hold children who are awaiting a court date, Teske notes.
“Every family court in the nation should be doing its part to avoid putting youth in pretrial confinement, especially without knowing when trials will be possible,” he writes. “Release is often the safest course, since social distancing in institutional settings is impossible, making these places veritable petri dishes for the virus.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that Alabama’s Bureau of Pardons and Paroles granted parole in just 15 of 160 cases—after being on hiatus for two months and “despite persistent calls from advocates to reduce the state’s prison population in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
SPLC found that of 160 people eligible for parole, 51 percent were Black and 47 percent were white. Yet, of the 15 people granted parole, 11 were white and four were Black.
According to the ACLU of Alabama, the parole board is facing a backlog of more than 4,000 cases.
On April 16, the ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center asked a federal judge to order the release of prisoners housed at the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution, a low-security facility in Youngstown. The ACLU argued that the prison’s 150-person communal units made social distancing impossible.
At the request of Judge James Gwin, the Bureau of Prisons produced a list of 837 medically vulnerable prisoners eligible for compassionate release or home confinement but, since then, has released only six.
Gwin wasn’t pleased and ordered the BOP to expedite the release of the remaining prisoners.
“By thumbing their nose at their authority to authorize home confinement,” he wrote in the May 19 order, the Bureau of Prisons “threaten staff and they threaten low security inmates.”
BOP has requested a stay of the order. In an opposition brief filed with the Supreme Court on Wednesday, the ACLU noted that “at least one in five prisoners housed at Elkton currently has COVID-19, and at least one in four prisoners have been infected at some point. Nine prisoners have already died, including two members of the medically vulnerable class subject to the injunction at issue here.”
The filing notes that the original list of 837 prisoners excluded nine people in error and should have 844 names.
In The Appeal today, Jordan Michael Smith writes about New Jersey’s “Special Treatment Unit,” a facility where people convicted of sexual offenses are held for civil punishment at the end of their criminal sentence. One prisoner, 26-year-old Joshua Denisiuk, told Smith that he has been in the STU since 2013 for sex crimes he committed when he was 15.
As of May 31, at least eight people in the STU died of COVID-19, Smith reports. (The cause of death for two others hasn’t been released.)
“With at least eight deaths per 441 prisoners, the STU has a higher death rate—by far—than any prison in America.”