A staggering 1 in 4 youth incarcerated in California’s prison system for juvenile offenders has been infected with the deadly coronavirus, a grim tally that has grown amid recent outbreaks.
As of this week, 196 young people along with 168 Division of Juvenile Justice staff have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the agency’s website. There are now 709 teens and young adults held at four state detention facilities.
The San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reports that those numbers include most of the roughly 40 young people housed at the lower-security Pine Grove fire camp in rural Amador County. As a result, they have been transferred to the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in San Joaquin County to quarantine in vacant prison cells.
Mike Sicilia, a spokesperson for the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), said he was unable to confirm the names of the facilities where juvenile offenders tested positive for coronavirus, due to privacy issues.
But he noted that greater protections will result from vaccinations that are now underway. More than 250 detention facility staff are among the first Californians to receive the initial wave of available doses.
The recent infections follow several COVID-19 outbreaks last summer at the state’s juvenile lockups, which house the most serious offenders sent by counties, renewing calls for some youth to be released home and supervised in their communities.
Ezekiel Nishiyama, a 19-year-old policy associate with the Los Angeles-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition who spent three years in the state’s youth prison system, said there is little room inside for social distancing, and even though many young people are infected but remain asymptomatic, their families are terrified.
“Imagine if you heard that your loved one on the inside has COVID,” Nishiyama said. “You’d be a lot more worried knowing that this system is taking care of your child or your little brother than if you had that person at home.”
The current 28% infection rate among young people could be even higher. Renee Menart, policy analyst for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice said her staff has heard from relatives of infected youth at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility who say some young people who believe they’ve been exposed have not been able to get tested.
This past summer, 42 youth were infected at the Ventura facility, one of the largest outbreaks at a juvenile detention center last year, according to research compiled by Josh Rovner of the Sentencing Project.
The design of California’s youth prison system presents a setting for the easy spread of the coronavirus, where antiquated facilities boast rows of cellblocks and open dorms with closely spaced bunks. Menart said even given the risk to the youth, staff and community, protocols requiring mask-wearing and health screening are not always followed.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s enough leadership at DJJ to make sure the policies are being followed through inside the facilities,” she said.
Craig Haney, a UC Santa Cruz psychologist who has studied the impacts of incarceration on children, called the spike in coronavirus cases at the state’s youth prison system “truly disturbing but entirely predictable.”
“Juvenile and adult correctional facilities are breeding grounds for this kind of virus — people living in close quarters where social distancing is impossible, places with poor ventilation, unsanitary conditions, and limited access to health care,” Haney wrote in an email to The Imprint.
In March and April, Haney testified in juvenile courts about the health risks during the pandemic for incarcerated youth offenders, including the psychological toll of quarantine, which can trigger trauma, and the torment of solitary confinement.
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But with the massive state warehouses still open, the rise in coronavirus cases prompted 13 state legislators to write a letter to Newsom late last month, calling on him to strictly enforce staff mask-wearing requirements, better report COVID-19 data – and reduce the youth prison population by releasing those who are medically vulnerable or close to their parole dates.
“Incarcerated youth in California must be kept safe not only from COVID-19, but from the devastating effects of isolation,” Assembly member Sydney Kamlager of Los Angeles stated in an email to The Imprint. “It is crucial that DJJ take swift action to prioritize transparency, commonsense public health measures, and population reduction.”
Division of Juvenile Justice spokesperson Sicilia said the state has vaccinated 265 staff as of Jan. 15, though he would not say how many had not yet been vaccinated. There are about 1,200 agency staff, but not all of those are in direct contact with youth, he said.
Menart and others have concerns over whether some staff may have declined the vaccine since it is encouraged, but not required, by the state.
Juvenile offenders over the age of 18 and other incarcerated adults without health conditions are scheduled to be vaccinated in the next phase of the state’s vaccination schedule. Youth between the ages of 16 and 18 — a small population at the Division of Juvenile Justice — will require parental consent before being vaccinated, Sicilia said.
Before leaving the youth prison system in 2019, Nishiyama said he served time at the Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp, where he was trained in firefighting. It would have been difficult to avoid contracting the coronavirus there, he said, where youth slept in an open dormitory and rode on firetrucks in close proximity to one another. When one person got sick, others would follow, he said.
Amador County and other jurisdictions rely on Pine Grove youth to keep the community safe from fires and maintain the streets and roads, he said. And last summer, as a lightning complex fire torched nearby Butte County, those young people battled the inferno alongside state and county crews.
“They’re essential workers,” Nishiyama said, “and we should be getting them the vaccine right away, just like our firefighters out here.”
UC professor Haney called on the state to mitigate this “self-inflicted crisis,” by prioritizing vaccinations for teens and adults in state prisons.
“But this should not substitute for early release from facilities that continue to be dangerous to the people confined in them,” he said.