Hundreds of youth locked up in state-run prisons in California remain in danger of contracting the coronavirus, testing has been lackluster and public information on infections hard to come by, according to a brief released Thursday by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
The nonprofit center based in San Francisco, accused the California Division of Juvenile Justice for “failing to respond sufficiently to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on youths’ safety.”
Although no one living or working in the youth prisons has so far died from COVID-19, as of mid-August — the most recent numbers the center was able to compile — at least 63 youth had contracted the virus, the report said. The first case was reported on June 15.
In July, the division stopped taking in new youth, but cases of infection continued to rise among the roughly 765 detained youth.
“DJJ’s first outbreak is not only a snapshot of past failure,” the authors concluded, “but a warning that the state must act now to protect youth, staff, and their families.”
Thursday’s report found officials slow to adopt and inconsistently enforce the public health guidelines, testing and screening measures that are critical to halting the spread of COVID-19.
The authors also criticized the department for lack of transparency. They said they had to develop their findings by gathering information through other means including meetings with administrators, attorneys, families, youth and staff.
Those living in cramped open dormitories, the authors said, found it nearly impossible to follow social distancing and other protocols aimed at containing the virus. And staff didn’t always wear masks, sending the wrong message to the detained youth.
The report found youth who were quarantined in individual cells because they were suspected of being infected were forced to spend at least half the day, and up to 22 hours a day, in unhealthy, sweltering conditions.
What’s more, the center found, state authorities have stopped or cut back on many rehabilitative and educational programs during the pandemic. Cutting education programs, it said, was “particularly alarming” given the already-dismal academic performance in the division’s high schools.
In August, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and legislators reached a deal to sunset the state’s three youth prisons. The state will halt new admissions to the facilities on July 1, 2021.