Before the coronavirus pandemic tore across the globe, a Southern California mom spent her Sundays performing a special kind of devotion, visiting her youngest son in a juvenile jail.
Taking time off from driving for DoorDash to travel the 50 miles from her home near Redondo Beach to Los Angeles County’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar offered a bit of relief. It was one small but significant way she could help her 18-year-old son confront the next at least eight years he is expected to spend locked up, after having been found to have participated in a violent crime. In between the visits, when she could afford his collect calls, the two would speak at least once a week by phone — twice if he was lucky enough to receive special privileges.
Then came the coronavirus. Following a state order last month, “for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency,” the 38-year-old mother isn’t able to see her son, now 18.
In a March 12 letter sent to parents of youthful offenders, the Los Angeles County Probation Department stated that while family visits are now suspended, officials “will continue to arrange for your child [sic] contact you regularly via telephone at no cost.”
But the teen’s mom – who now carts around her two daughters ages 5 and 7 while she delivers meals to the homebound – said she’s still paying as much as $20 per hour for calls. And according to her son, there is no word from facility staff on changes to phone call policies, or whether video chats will be available.
Both the mother and her son’s names are not being published, to protect his privacy as a juvenile offender.
Since March 22, there have been two confirmed cases of coronavirus infections in the Sylmar juvenile hall and the courthouse connected to it, according to press reports and a statement from the Superior Court, involving a hall employee and a public defender.
In a statement sent to the probation department’s staff, Interim Chief Ray Leyva said that no youth or staff members still working in the Sylmar detention facility currently has symptoms of coronavirus. But as a precaution, 21 young people from the unit who came into contact with the staffer have been placed in quarantine or sent home. Those still in the facility have their temperature taken twice daily and are remaining on their unit; they wear surgical masks if they have to be transported to the medical module, according to the probation department.
Officials said three of the 21 youth have been released to their families.
The unit where the infected employee worked has now been sanitized, and the probation department has pledged to increase social distancing throughout the facility, including limiting the congregation of youth to groups of six or less, having youth shower individually, staggering meal times, and maximizing outside space during recreation times.
Nonetheless, parents and youth advocates remain concerned that the precautions are not stringent enough to prevent viral catastrophe, and that transparency is too often lacking.
The 18-year-old’s mother, for example, said that the probation department did not inform her about the infected staff member — she found out from news reports — and that when she spoke with her son about it, he had no idea he could be at risk of infection.
“We’re supposed to be trusting them with our kids,” she said. “They’re supposed to be safe in there.”
As recently as March 25, dozens of prosecutors, lawyers and religious leaders sent a letter to county health agencies, stating that youth in juvenile halls and camps did not have consistent access to soap, water and hand sanitizer.
“The most pressing concerns are system-wide reports that social distancing is not being enforced by probation officers who supervise the children,” the letter signed by 29 groups and community leaders stated. In the probation camps, youth are living in crowded dormitories and the “6-foot rule is neither explained nor enforced;” in the juvenile halls there is little instruction for youth to wash their hands regularly and avoid touching their faces, according to the advocates. They also said youth who show signs of illness are only treated to medical attention if they advocate for themselves by filling out a form.
“The time for action is now,” the letter stated. “We urge you to take immediate and decisive action now to save lives.”
Meanwhile, the Southern California mother struggles to soothe her anxiety about conditions in the hall. She has three other children to care for on a meager income from the gig economy, which she cobbles together with public benefits. Although she has children ages 19 to 5 years old, she’s especially close with her incarcerated son, who she has stuck with despite the dark turn his life took in his late teenage years.
“I still call him my baby,” she said. While he’s gotten into trouble before, this is his first time being incarcerated, she added — and the first time mother and son have been separated.
Often, when she talks with her son by phone, he’s in the dayroom where the teens in his unit gather to play cards and hang out during the hours they’re not locked down in their cells. She can hear them laughing and chatting — which is simultaneously a relief and a concern.
“They’re not doing this social distancing thing,” she said. And her son tells her they don’t have easy access to hand sanitizer. If they want to disinfect their hands, he has said, they have to ask facility staff to share a squirt from their supply.
Still, the 18-year-old has been stoic about his risk of infection, his mother said, taking an attitude of “it is what it is.” But she thinks he’s more afraid than he’s letting on.
“I think deep down he is kind of scared,” she said. “Nobody wants to die in jail – that’s a really horrible feeling.”
Legal groups and advocates in at least 33 states are calling for young people in lockups to be released to the custody of parents or guardians to avoid exposure to coronavirus. Of the 43,000 juvenile offenders imprisoned nationwide, many are serving time for probation violations and low-level, nonviolent offenses. Others are medically fragile or are scheduled to be released soon, and they are among the populations being let go by some counties nationwide.
But the 18-year-old in detention in Sylmar does not fall into these groups. He is in the first year of an eight- to 17-year sentence, and is awaiting transfer to a state youth prison run by the Division of Juvenile Justice. That transfer however – like so many other fundamentals in the lives of those detained during the coronavirus pandemic – remains on hold. Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom froze any new entries into juvenile justice facilities.
There are many other unknowns, adding to the panic of having her youngest son locked up in an era when The New York Times reports that nearly four billion people – “half of humanity” – is living under a shelter in place order of some sort.
“Our students are terrified. Many believe they are going to die,” stated David Domenici, the founder of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, in a plea to the public to write letters to incarcerated youth. “Each day that passes increases the trauma, risk, real hurt and long-term mental health scars they will endure long after COVID-19 has passed.” In his March 26 letter published by The Imprint, Domenici echoed advocates’ call for supervision in home-based settings for youthful offenders to avoid mass contagion. “They are held in our country’s least sanitary and most dangerous institutions.”
It’s been an especially hard time for the teenager locked up in Sylmar to be deprived of family visits. His best childhood friend died this week, and he needs his mother — his main supporter — now more than ever, she said. Yet they’ve had little time to work through that traumatic event in their limited phone calls.
She said teenagers in custody like her son need JPay tablets, special devices that allow people in detention to video chat with family, read the news, access educational materials and listen to music and audiobooks.
Meanwhile, the teens in custody are waiting to see their families again, as soon as the end of April, the teen’s mother said they are being told by staff at the detention facility. But she doesn’t buy it. Everything she reads in the news indicates that coronavirus concerns will take much longer to clear up.
“They shouldn’t be telling these kids a date,” she said. “They’re just getting these kids’ hopes up.”