As social distancing rules have clamped down most of Los Angeles, activists desperate to avoid coronavirus catastrophe in the cramped lockups housing adult and juvenile offenders are taking to the streets – using creativity to conduct a mass protest from safety of a car.
At a planned downtown “car march” at noon on Tuesday, advocates led by a coalition of youth justice organizations plan to drive their cars and trucks in a noisy procession in otherwise mostly silent, empty streets. The public demonstration is designed to persuade county leaders to release the incarcerated from detention centers into homes where they can be monitored away from jails that have become breeding grounds for the virus.
New developments on the infection front led urgency to the public protest.
On Monday, the county Probation Department announced that a second staff member at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall located in Sylmar had tested positive for the coronavirus, leading to the quarantine of 22 additional youth in one unit at the facility where the staff member worked. Eighteen other youth remain in quarantine at the hall, following Wednesday’s news that another probation staffer was sent home after a positive test.
So far, at least one person incarcerated in an L.A. County jail and several Sheriff’s Department employees have also tested positive for COVID-19.
The brutal next-stage scenario so feared by justice advocates struck New York’s Rikers Island Jail on Sunday, after a rash of infections. A 53-year-old incarcerated man became the first incarcerated person to die after contracting the virus in custody, according to reporting by The New York Times. The newspaper cited an official toll over the weekend of 273 inmates, 321 employees and 53 health care workers who had lived or worked in the jails testing positive, and four deaths among corrections staff.
Fearing such human devastation in Los Angeles, advocates are taking to the streets – in as safe a manner as possible with the nation’s most populous state under strict shelter-in-place orders.
“The calls we’re getting from the inside are people getting more and more panicked,” said Kim McGill, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition, a grassroots advocacy group leading the Tuesday protest. “We don’t have confidence in the system to protect people’s health or get them access to health care.”
To date, at least 2,000 incarcerated adults have been released from Los Angeles County jails and another 3,500 adults have come home from state prisons – part of a statewide effort to curb the spread of coronavirus. Few youth, however, have yet been released from juvenile halls or camps.
Leaders of the courts and probation systems say they are managing a fast-moving crisis while balancing public health and public safety.
“The Superior Court of Los Angeles County continues to take proactive steps during this public health crisis to protect the health and safety of the public, justice partners, judicial officers and employees while continuing to handle time-sensitive, emergency matters,” stated Mary Hearn, a spokesperson with the Superior Court. “We recognize the urgency of protecting these youths.”
In an email last week, Hearn also said work is underway to “identify minors for release to slow the spread of COVID-19 in county juvenile facilities,” and “to make the best decisions in the interests of public health and safety for all minors, their families and the community.”
The Youth Justice Coalition is expecting to be joined Tuesday by members of other groups, including the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Alliance of Boys and Men of Color and Homeboy Industries, among others.
Starting at noon, they plan to use their cars to circle a block in downtown Los Angeles that functions as a nerve center for the county’s enormous criminal justice infrastructure. The area includes the Clara Shortridge Foltz Courthouse, the office of L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey and the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department. The Board of Supervisors’ Hall of Administration is a short walk away, as is City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office.
No one is expected to leave the confines of their cars. Organizers said they hoped to make a lot of noise with upward of 100 vehicles expected, a mobile disc jockey and a sound system. Participants are being asked to decorate their cars with messages about the need for more urgent action to protect incarcerated people in the county.
For weeks, Los Angeles-area justice advocates have been writing to DA Lacey, the court system, public defenders and the probation department, urging the release of many youth incarcerated at juvenile halls and camps for low-level offenses. They also want all new detentions halted, similar to the halt on new entries for the state’s youth prisons. For those that cannot be released, they want greater access to free phone calls, masks and disinfectant.
“It’s been frustrating for people, maybe generally, to know how to fight back,” organizer McGill said. “But I think our membership has been thinking that from the start that we have to get people out.”
Although the L.A. County Board of Supervisors signed a motion last week designed to provide youth at county juvenile halls and camps with greater health protections, advocates are not satisfied. Coronavirus cases in the county now top 6,360, with 147 deaths.
“Unfortunately, both locally and nationally, systems and elected officials have shown a disregard for the health of folks who are incarcerated,” said Donna Harati, legal director for Homeboy Industries, which serves the formerly incarcerated. “The very nature of incarceration is a public health crisis, but this situation is really catastrophic.”
Jeremy Loudenback can be reached at [email protected].