US Putting 43,000 Youth at Risk in Prison, Detention;
Youth Corrections Leaders Call for Decisive Steps to Protect Them
New York, NY – Youth prisons house some of the most medically vulnerable youth in the US putting them in jeopardy of contracting or spreading COVID-19, according to a statement issued today by Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice (YCLJ), a group comprised of youth corrections officials who do or have run such youth facilities.
Their recommendations for Youth Justice Systems During COVID-19, signed onto by 30 current and former youth correctional administrators, include:
The statement notes that while children are generally considered at lower risk from the virus, youth in the juvenile justice system are typically less healthy than their peers. There are high rates of asthma among system-involved youth, a condition that is associated with more severe illness in those who contract Coronavirus. Massive COVID-19 infections were reported in prisons in China and Iran, underscoring the need to protect youth in such facilities.
“As a nation, we have decided that it is not safe for our children to be in school together. That means it is certainly not safe for them to live in congregate facilities with hundreds of other youth, 24/7,” said Vincent Schiraldi, co-chair of the YCLJ. “Those of us who have run these places know that the idea of social distancing is preposterous in such an environment, and introducing the virus to a locked facility would be devastating.”
“Many jurisdictions are controlling infection risk by suspending visits and volunteer programs that are essential to young people’s well-being. The experience of incarceration, which we know is incredibly damaging to young people in the best of circumstances, just got worse. We should be sending kids home whenever possible and taking action to ameliorate conditions for those youth who remain incarcerated during this crisis,” said Gladys Carrión, former Commissioner in charge of New York State and New York City youth corrections and YCLJ co-chair.
“We know from research that the vast majority of the children in youth prisons can be better cared for in their homes and communities any day of the year. But, especially in this unprecedented time, we must move quickly from talk to action and allow as many children as possible to get home – both for the safety of youth and correctional staff,” said Candice Jones, president and CEO, Public Welfare Foundation and former director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.
“YCLJ members, including myself, have worked to minimize incarceration in favor of community-based solutions that help young people make gains in school, health and life. These innovations invariably cost less than incarceration and produce lower recidivism rates. Incarcerating youth during this epidemic is an unnecessary risk. We can, and have, found safe alternatives to release some youth from incarceration in this difficult time. It begs the question that, if we can do it now, why haven’t we been more judicious about these alternatives all along?” said Mark Mertens, administrator of the Division of Youth and Family Services for Milwaukee County, Wisconsin.
Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice unites current and former youth correctional administrators to build a national movement, one that aims to shift systems away from the use of punitive sanctions and incarceration and focus instead on a more youth-, family-, and community-oriented vision of youth justice. We imagine a world where the tens of thousands of youth currently in custody are treated in the same ways that we would treat our own children, close to home, treated with dignity and respect, and given opportunities to grow and succeed. The large, punitive youth prisons, often located far from youths’ communities and families, that still exist across the country, must be replaced with community-based resources.
YCLJ is supported by the Columbia University Justice Lab, which combines original research, policy development, and community engagement to propel the project of justice reform.