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California Must Safeguard Youth in State Facilities Amid COVID-19 Oubreak

Open dormitory at DJJ.

See CJCJ's Letter to Senator Nancy Skinner outlining recommended COVID-19 safeguards for youth in state youth correctional facilities.

California must move quickly to halt the spread of COVID-19 within the state’s youth correctional institutions, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). As of September 18th, 68 youth and 47 staff members have tested positive for the virus. 

Youth at DJJ are highly susceptible to contagious illnesses given the facilities’ structure and large populations (each holding over 150 youth). They have daily physical contact with one another, particularly in large open dormitory units, and are subjected to substandard conditions within their living units, including communal bathroom areas. At least one youth who tested positive for COVID-19 lived in an open dormitory unit where the virus could easily have spread to dozens of others. 

Shower area in a DJJ living unit.

For decades, CJCJ has monitored conditions at DJJ and called attention to abuse and neglect within the facilities. Last year, we released a report bringing light to DJJ’s appalling treatment of youth, including its high levels of violence, reliance on isolation, and unhealthy living conditions. Now, we are gravely concerned that DJJ’s pattern of neglect will continue, placing DJJ youth, staff, and our communities at risk. 

Epidemiologists warn that juvenile facilities are likely to experience dangerous outcomes amid COVID-19 outbreaks and recent research indicates that the virus may pose a greater risk of severe illness to young people than scientists once thought. To slow the spread of COVID-19 and support the well-being of youth in these facilities, CJCJ strongly recommends the following: 

  1. Drastically reduce the population of DJJ to allow for proper social distancing by: 
    1. Permanently ending new admissions of youth to DJJ;
    2. Releasing all youth who are medically vulnerable; and
    3. Evaluating the remaining population for release by considering whether 1) they pose a physical risk to the community and 2) they are set to be released within six months.
  2. Stop the rapid spread of COVID-19 by:
    1. Making testing available to 100% of youth and staff in all DJJ facilities;
    2. Limiting the movement of staff through the facilities; and
    3. Ensuring that all staff use face coverings while in the facilities.
  3. Maintain connection between youth and their loved ones by:
    1. Ensuring that all young people have access to video calls, including youth who are quarantined. 
  4. Support youths’ mental and emotional wellness amid safety precautions by:
    1. Limiting the use of isolation of youth as a response to COVID-19.
    2. Documenting all instances in which a young person was isolated due to a COVID-19 precaution or response, including the number of hours and the location of their isolation.
    3. Maintaining structured social and educational activities for youth while ensuring social distancing standards are met.

Bathroom in a DJJ living unit.

COVID-19 has arrived at DJJ. If the reckless population transfers and sluggish approach to mitigation seen at San Quentin and other adult prisons occurs at DJJ, COVID-19 will continue to move through the youth population with little time to implement precautions or reduce density. Prison walls and guard towers cannot stop the spread of disease. They accelerate it.

To protect against a devastating outcome, California leaders must act now to safeguard youth. Every day that a youth spends at DJJ exposes them to additional risk — both from COVID-19 and from the violence, isolation, and traumatic conditions that have long defined life in the state institutions. Ending the influx of youth into the facilities and releasing youth who are ready to return home is essential to safeguarding the hundreds of Californians inside DJJ and the thousands beyond its walls.

Keywords: Division of Juvenile Justice, DJJ, healthcare, Juvenile justice, Maureen Washburn, youth justice

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice

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