It wasn’t so long ago that, in another crisis, when Hurricane Katrina hit our southern coast, the justice system literally left youth behind. While people were evacuated from New Orleans, youth in the juvenile justice system were left in a correctional facility downtown.
The system’s utter failure to plan left incarcerated youth with the water rising all around them, without food, drinkable water or access to their families.
We now face that the consequences of such a failure again—but on a much larger scale, as the United States experiences an unprecedented public health crisis.
Daily pronouncements from federal, state and local officials, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend the steps we all need to take to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
They are by now familiar: wash our hands frequently, stay at home and, if we need to step outside for food or other necessities, practice “social distancing,” maintaining at least a six-foot distance from other people.
But consider for a minute that you weren’t able to take that advice—if you were crowded into a space with scores of other people whom you had no choice to distance yourself from, and no easy access to sanitizer?
At a moment when Americans are reaching out to their families and friends on their cell phones, through video conferencing and on social media, what if you were almost completely cut off from your community, possibly all by yourself with no way to see or communicate with your family or friends?
Or worse, what if you couldn’t keep up with the latest information about this pandemic, including health advisories, because you have limited or no access to television news or media reports?
For young people who are behind bars in juvenile detention centers or youth prisons, this is their reality—right now.
Advocates around the country have been warning about the serious risks faced by incarcerated populations, including young people in custody. But those warnings are already being outpaced by events.
The rise of COVID-19 cases in jails and prisons affects not only the incarcerated , but the staff at these facilities. Corrections officers who are sickened by the virus are quarantined, and many others who are concerned for their families may stop coming to work.
What will that mean for youth who are locked up?
Without the means to personally ensure their own health and safety, young people behind bars are especially at risk. Advocates in more than 30 states have sent letters calling on governors and other state and local officials to protect these young people by releasing as many as possible from behind bars, and to stop admitting new youth to these facilities.
Some have responded. But the nation’s governors, judges, state and local officials need to act quickly.
And they need to ensure the safety and health of the youth who are released.
To ensure youth are supported in their transition home, advocates are urging governors to invest resources to ensure youth have a place to live, food and basic necessities.
Current and former juvenile detention and correctional officials are echoing these calls.
Our elected officials say they want to avoid what we’ve seen happen in other countries affected by the pandemic, such as Italy, whose health care systems have become so overwhelmed that they can’t adequately care for everyone with this virus, and are forced to make life-or-death decisions about who gets medical assistance.
It’s a forbidding responsibility. But they must spare some concern for one of America’s most vulnerable populations: the young people who are left behind in youth detention or correctional facilities.
Let’s learn from our past mistakes, such as what happened after Katrina, and not repeat the same mismanagement, neglect and poor treatment.
We have a moral obligation to do so.
The nation’s governors, lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, county officials, juvenile detention authorities, and corrections leaders must do everything in their power to ensure the health and safety of youth in the justice system during this pandemic.
They must release youth from detention centers and youth prisons, and ensure they can return home to support systems that have been given sufficient resources to keep them healthy and safe.
And they must do it now.
Additional Reading: “Lower Level of COVID-19 Health Care Warned for Kids in Custody,” The Crime Report, April 1, 2020
Liz Ryan is president of Youth First Initiative. She welcomes comments from readers.