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California Must Safeguard Youth in State Facilities Amid New COVID-19 Outbreaks

Open dormitory unit at DJJ.

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 November 20th 2021, 255 youth and 278 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 and are subjected to substandard conditions within their living units. Several COVID-19 outbreaks have occured in open dormitory living units where the virus easily spread through shared bunk rooms.  

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 week, 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. We are gravely concerned that DJJ’s longstanding pattern of neglect has worsened amid the pandemic, placing DJJ youth, staff, and our communities at risk. 

Juvenile facilities, like DJJ, are subjecting youth to dangerous and isolating living conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent research indicates that the virus may pose a greater risk of severe illness to young people than scientists once thought. Prison walls and guard towers cannot stop the spread of disease. They accelerate it.

To protect youth and communities, California leaders must act now. 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. Releasing youth who are ready to return home is essential to safeguarding the hundreds of Californians inside DJJ and the thousands beyond its walls.

Recent DJJ monitoring reports

Past letters outlining COVID-19 safety recommendations

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