Coronavirus’s Arrival in California Juvenile Lockup Sparks Concern

Youth at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility. Photo courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

As the coronavirus has torn through California’s incarcerated population, nine young people locked up in one of the state’s youth prisons have tested positive for it — a worrisome sign for the Division of Juvenile Justice that has so far avoided the mass outbreaks of the adult prisons. 

The state agency reports three infections were identified last month at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, with six more coming over the weekend. At least one of the positive tests came as a result of a young person transferred to the prison during the pandemic. Seven staff members who work at the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) have also tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

After avoiding even a single identified positive case during the first months of the pandemic, the first positive tests in the three facilities run by the Division of Juvenile Justice have heightened concerns that further infections could be forthcoming — following the deadly spread of the coronavirus through adult prisons in the state. There are now more than 2,700 confirmed coronavirus cases among California’s 113,000 adult prisoners. 

The worst outbreak, at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, is being attributed to a transfer of infected prisoners from Southern California that has now sickened one in three of the incarcerated people there. 

“Our fear is that the same patterns and misguided approaches to transferring people or keeping young people in open dormitory settings — these are the things that we know drive infection,” said Maureen Washburn, a policy analyst with the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “Yet those practices continue at DJJ.”

Roughly 800 young adults who committed crimes as juveniles are held in three youth prisons and a firefighting camp. The Division of Juvenile Justice facilities are relied upon by counties for those youth who have committed the most serious and violent offenses, though the majority of the state’s juvenile offenders remain near their homes in county-run facilities.

But that will change as soon as next January. In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would put an end to the state’s juvenile justice system, which was once notorious for its inhumane and abusive practices, including locking young people in cages and confining them to solitary cells for 23 hours a day. The state is expected to release more details about how it will phase out the Division of Juvenile Justice — and instead detain all youth in county-run facilities — later this summer

One young person detained at the Stockton lockup known as “Chad” — once among the state’s most dangerous youth prisons — tested positive for COVID-19 on June 14, and two others on June 23. According to state officials, one of those infected remains quarantined in an on-site medical housing unit, while the two others have since tested negative and have been returned to the general in-custody population.

Division of Juvenile Justice spokesperson Michael Sicilia said the state is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines by housing young people who show symptoms or test positive in medical isolation until testing shows they are free of the virus. Others who may have come in contact with the infected are also placed in quarantine. 

At least one person who tested positive had been recently admitted to Chad from a county-run juvenile hall after Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) lifted a two-month moratorium on new entries to the Division of Juvenile Justice on May 25. 

Fearing a rise in infections, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) had halted the intake of youth at Division of Juvenile Justice facilities on March 24 through an executive order, saying he wanted “to make sure we are isolating people and we’re not mixing populations as we tend to do with transfers and the like on a typical basis.”

But when Newsom’s order expired two months later, transfers from county facilities began again, and appear to have fueled the infections last month at the Stockton youth prison. So far, 20 youth have arrived at Chad from county lockups, Sicilia said.

He said that when new groups arrive at DJJ facilities, they are housed apart from others at the facility for 14 days. All new arrivals are tested for COVID-19 upon arrival and again on day 12. After 14 days and a negative test, they join the general population. The young people are also tested before being transferred between facilities and they are not moved until there is a negative test result. 

But transfers remains an acute worry for youth advocates, given how cases have spiraled out of control in California’s adult prisons. At San Quentin, coronavirus has now infected one-third of all people incarcerated there, after the prison appeared to have avoided widespread infections at the onset of the pandemic, after officials traced the recent outbreak to the May 30 transfer of prisoners from a state prison at Chino, where the pandemic spiked in April and May.  

In a letter to the California Senate Public Safety Committee last week, Washburn of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice called on the state to heed the lessons of San Quentin. 

In order to prevent facilities overseen by the Division of Juvenile Justice from becoming a “viral tinderbox,” she said, the state should test all juvenile offenders, as well as release those who are close to the end of their sentences or who are medically vulnerable. Otherwise, she warned, daily physical contact with staff and other youth in common areas, and large, open dormitory units with shared bathrooms will breed further infections.

“Our fear is that, unfortunately, it’s just a matter of time until cases increase and we see something exponentially larger at DJJ,” Washburn said in an interview with The Imprint.

Across California, many local juvenile justice systems in Los Angeles, Santa Clara and Fresno counties have released incarcerated youth to minimize the risk of infection, but the state has yet to follow suit.  

Meanwhile, the number of those infected with the coronavirus in juvenile detention facilities has seen a steady rise across the country. Nationally, 796 young people and 833 staff members had tested positive as of June 29, according to data collected by Josh Rovner of the Sentencing Project. 

In contrast, Rovner reports that just 36 youth in California have confirmed cases of the coronavirus, though he relies on limited publicly available data and media reports for his tallies. In addition to the three new cases in the Stockton lockup, 27 teens have tested positive in facilities overseen by the Los Angeles County Probation Department, four in Riverside County at the Alan M. Crogan Youth Treatment and Education Center and two at the Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall.

This article was updated on Monday afternoon with new information about coronavirus infections at the Division of Juvenile Justice.

Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Imprint and can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

Your support allows The Imprint to provide independent, nonpartisan daily news covering the issues faced by vulnerable children and families.

Subscribe or Donate

Youth Voice Writing Submissions are still open. Do you or someone you know have experience as a #fosteryouth with insights to #racism and #policebrutality? We want to amplify your stories. More info here: https://j.mp/3ig6qr9

U.S. @RepGwenMoore wants to halt federal timelines on reunification from #fostercare until the pandemic is over https://bit.ly/3ixvz0I #childwelfare