The coronavirus has given us all a small taste of solitary confinement. People who live alone have been in isolation. Families have been isolated as a unit, cut off from friends, co-workers, and the outside world. Confinement is frustrating and often boring, but we do it to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
Youth in juvenile facilities are actually living in solitary confinement because of COVID-19.
Most are housed in rooms that are about half the size of a parking space. The rooms usually contain only a concrete platform, with a mattress for sleeping, and a combination sink and toilet. Before Covid-19, they were locked up in a building, but they could go to school, get exercise, and watch television in groups.
Now they spend 22-23 hours a day in their rooms.
Over 40,000 youth live in juvenile facilities; they are disproportionately poor and youth of color. About 70 percent of young people detained after arrest are charged with nonviolent offenses.
About 45 percent committed to state custody are charged with nonviolent offenses.
This is an issue of survival. Young people should not be put in the position of losing their sanity to solitary confinement, or losing their health or their lives to the coronavirus.
These young people face a Catch-22.
If they are released from their rooms to interact with staff and each other, they are in danger of catching the coronavirus. Juvenile facilities rarely have the resources for youth to wash their hands frequently, or ensure that staff sanitize all potentially contaminated surfaces regularly; the close quarters make social distancing impossible.
But if young people are confined in their rooms, they are alone with four blank walls: true solitary confinement.
The psychological damage to children from solitary confinement has been well-documented. Additionally, many children have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional trauma before being incarcerated and solitary can easily re-traumatize them. No parent would want their child placed in a bare room by themselves for days or weeks, particularly while the infection and death rates from Covid-19 soar across the country.
This is not necessarily an issue of neglect or mismanagement by those who operate juvenile facilities. On the contrary — most facility administrators are extremely concerned about transmission of the virus, and many have been creative in fashioning protective policies and practices.
But the limitations on physical space and available staff stack the deck against them.
This is not solely an issue about the health of young people; staff are locked up in the same building and conditions as the youth. Many staff have underlying risk factors like chronic medical conditions. And, at the end of the day, staff return to their families and communities.
If COVID-19 spreads in a facility, staff can easily carry it home with them. Facility administrators must protect the health of their staff as well as that of their young charges. Like medical responders in hospitals, when the staff in juvenile facilities get sick, the situation gets worse for everyone.
This is an issue of common sense. Decades of research demonstrate that the vast majority of youth do not require incarceration to protect public safety. The authors of this article have both sued and worked with juvenile and adult correctional systems, and we have seen reforms work in states throughout the country.
Here are four basic measures that cities, counties and states should take:
End New Admissions
Cease new admissions to juvenile detention, correctional, and placement facilities unless youth pose an immediate and substantial risk to public safety.
Release With Reentry Plan
Release as many young people from secure and congregate care settings as possible unless they present a significant public safety risk, and make sure there are reentry plans for each person released;
Care for Those Remaining Inside
Ensure that youth who remain incarcerated receive necessary supports and services, including information about Covid-19, prompt access to medical care, continued access to education and special education services, continued access to legal counsel (e.g., through teleconferencing), continued access to family members and other supportive individuals by phone and video.
Stop Putting Them Behind Bars
End the widespread practice of incarcerating youth for technical violations of probation.
Judges, prosecutors, probation officers, agency directors, and facility administrators should follow these guidelines. Working together, as long as it takes, we will get through this crisis.
Right now, we must save the children.
Mark Soler is executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, and former interim director of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.