As Pandemic Lockdowns Dragged On, Youth in Lockups Sought to Harm Themselves
At Puerto Rico’s two juvenile lockups near the island’s southern coast, isolation among detained youth — and temporary shortages among the staff trained to deal with it — have led to a worrisome spike in the number of youths contemplating or attempting to injure themselves, reports say.
Puerto Rico’s juvenile justice system has been praised for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calling it “a case study” for preventing serious outbreaks among incarcerated people and staff.
But federal court records show that in the aftermath of strict lockdowns and turnover among psychiatric staff, the island’s two juvenile detention facilities have seen disturbingly high levels of violence and self-harm since last summer.
The most recent report by a federal court-appointed monitor, who oversees promised reforms for detained youth, documented more than two dozen incidents of “suicidal incidents, ideation or gestures” between January and March, and more than four dozen violent incidents involving staff or juvenile offenders that resulted in “harm to youth.”
Psychiatric hospitalizations have declined to pre-pandemic levels at the facilities in Ponce and Villalba, housing roughly 65 youths. Still, the number of reported incidents of suicidal behavior remained higher than before the pandemic. Staff-on-youth and youth-on-youth violence was also reportedly up five-fold from the prior spring.
The numbers are made public every quarter, as a result of a three-decade court battle between the U.S. Department of Justice and Puerto Rico over conditions in its juvenile justice system. The court monitor first reported a surge in self-harm incidents in Puerto Rico last fall, with 13 “serious” hanging attempts and suicidal youth hospitalized 23 times.
In a subsequent ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Gustavo Gelpí, who is based in San Juan, called the situation “constitutionally unacceptable,” warning Puerto Rico it could be held in contempt of court and required to release some incarcerated youth.
Offering rare public insight into the locked facilities, the head of the court monitoring team, Indiana civil rights attorney Kim Tandy, wrote in a June report that some of those challenges continued through the winter: “There were a reported 18 youth this quarter placed in paper gowns with constant supervision due to suicidality. Some youth interviewed were subjected to use of force measures during the psychiatric emergency when they refused to get into the paper gown.”
Athelyn Jiménez Emmanuelli, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Puerto Rico, said one of her teenage clients — a 17-year-old boy from a town in western Puerto Rico — attempted suicide at least three times while locked up in the spring, as the pandemic delayed court proceedings and restricted visits from familes and lawyers.
His actions, Jiménez Emmaneulli said, were “provoked because of the time passing without a resolution of his case.”
“They didn’t have access to their families, or workshops, or other services — or to absolutely anyone,” she said. “The double lockdown exacerbated pre-existing mental health issues among a lot of the youth in detention.”
Spanish-language press in Puerto Rico has covered the increase in self-harm among detained youth, though mainland English-language news outlets have yet to report the story.
In February, the newspaper El Nuevo Día reported that the three-judge panel appointed by a federal appeals court to consider releasing youth during the pandemic, was “a type of judicial process not seen in Puerto Rico in more than three decades.”
Puerto Rico’s government has vigorously denied there is a crisis, and disputed the court monitor’s recent characterizations of youth attempting self-harm. The commonwealth claimed the monitoring team had overstated suicidal behavior, since hospitalizations are required under local law, and argued in court they are not “an indication of the severity of the situation.”
In an interview last week, Ana Escobar Pabón, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation secretary, noted that the system has shrunk from 1,700 youth since the early 1990s, and that no youth had died in any facility in two decades.
“There were no cases of psychosis, and the so-called [suicide] ‘attempts’ would actually include any gestures or mentions — without any real intent — that any one of these youth would have,” to take their lives, Escobar Pabón said through a translator.
In December, Escobar Pabón’s department argued against a judge’s proposal to release some young detainees in response to the self-harm numbers, and disputed the need for a three-judge panel to review the situation — stating that current services and remedial measures were sufficient.
“We keep focusing on how important it is to improve the mental health of youth even through this COVID-19 pandemic,” she said, noting that public health protocols included a “pause on any contact” between youth and families for almost a year and a half.
But, she added, “we have been in constant communication with families.”
Use-of-force by staff, self-harm among detained youth, and the detention facilities’ inadequate responses were among the Department of Justice’s initial concerns when it filed litigation against Puerto Rico in the early 1990s, alleging violations of detainees’ rights under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, as well as federal civil rights laws that protect people held in institutions.
The Commonwealth’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has since fulfilled almost all of the 300 requirements from a settlement with the Justice Department, improved physical conditions, and closed more than a dozen facilities. The court has continued to monitor standards on two dozen categories at the two remaining detention centers, including those related to education and mental health.
Escobar Pabón, who has worked for the department for 35 years and was confirmed to lead it in January, said the island’s juvenile justice system has confronted serious crises that delayed progress toward resolving the litigation — including Hurricane Maria in 2017, earthquakes that began in 2019, and then the pandemic.
But, she is aiming to reach or be “extremely close” to full compliance within two years. “The judge has spoken favorably in terms of how we have addressed all of these situations, ever since I assumed my position,” she said.
Located on the outskirts of the city of Ponce, and in the nearby southern community of Villalba, the island’s two juvenile facilities house pre-trial detainees and some youths whose cases have been decided, typically adolescents aged 13 to 21.
A psychologist on the monitoring team has been reviewing self-harm incidents, speaking with youth, and detailing findings for the court. Dr. Miriam Martinez reported in June that one detained youth had 25 mental health providers, including eight psychiatrists, in just over a year. In four out of 32 instances of suicidal ideation or “self-mutilation” reviewed over a three-month period, a psychiatrist was not available within a 24-hour period.
“The youth interviewed named stress over not seeing their family as a major reason for their depression and anxiety,” Martinez reported. “Some of the youth that had suicidal ideation or who had attempted suicide named ‘desperation’ at not seeing family or worrying about family as a major stress.”
One young man who was released from the Villalba detention facility in March, after spending four months in pandemic lockdown, said in an interview last week that he and others had virtually no contact with the outside world, and could only interact with staff and officers.
He said the young people had lost touch with events outside their lockup, and missed friends and family. The isolation caused stress and anxiety, said the 21-year-old, who wished to be identified only by his middle name, Jesús, to protect his family’s privacy.
“Certain youths were more capable of surviving the pandemic than others,” he said in Spanish. “Maybe they were more vulnerable and didn’t know how to deal with themselves.”
For his part, Jesús immersed himself in books, which have become his favorite pastime. He even joined a kind of lockup book club. “Curiosity kept me entertained,” he said, adding that other youth were not able to find a cure for boredom and loneliness.
Additional efforts to improve the well-being of Puerto Rico’s youth offenders are also under way. Island lawmakers have introduced legislation that would change how minors are treated in court and detention facilities, including banning solitary confinement and the use of pepper spray.
The bill’s language mentions Kalief Browder of New York, who was locked up in 2010 at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack. Kalief later died by suicide after spending two of his three years at New York City’s notorious adult jail on Rikers Island in solitary confinement.
José Vargas Vidot, a Puerto Rican senator who sponsored the bill, told an Imprint reporter that more than half of the island’s youth have been below the poverty line for decades.
“There isn’t one youth in jail from private school or a powerful family. It’s youth who are from the barrio, who don’t have an adequate support system, that have to pay the price for a society that’s failed to meet its responsibility to care for him,” Vidot said. “The more pressure there is from a punitive society, the harder it is for youth to move past the shame and stigma. We’re trying to find a way to include an element of care.”
A longtime New York juvenile justice administrator who now consults with communities on reforming youth services — including Puerto Rico’s child welfare system — said the island needs to continue moving away from the punishing practices of large, 20th-century institutions.
“We know that segregating youth far away in large facilities doesn’t foster the kind of relationship young people need to thrive and do better,” said Felipe Franco, a senior fellow with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Franco, a Puerto Rico native, pointed toward smaller locked residences in Illinois, New York and Missouri as models. “If those facilities can be small and with a clear focus on building skills and therapeutic programs, young people do better.”
Escobar Pabón said her agency is evaluating those alternative models but “we don’t have any concrete plans finished at this time.” She added that her department had recently helped 30 incarcerated youth graduate from high school.
Federal Justice officials initially concurred with Judge Gelpí last year that a three-judge panel should be appointed to evaluate whether youth need to be released. But earlier this year, the federal agency sided with Puerto Rico that additional oversight wasn’t needed, for now.
“At this time, we do not believe there is a ‘crisis moment’ that requires the immediate attention of the Three-Judge Court,” the department’s attorneys reported, pledging to continue scrutinizing the quality of the commonwealth’s mental health services. And this month, Gelpí approved a recent motion from Puerto Rico to dissolve the three-judge panel.
“It makes sense because the monitor is saying that things are stable,” Jiménez Emmanuelli said. “But as a juvenile defender I have concerns, because for me, one suicide attempt is too many.”
This story is being co-published with The Miami Herald.