Nearly 50 young people have tested positive for the coronavirus at Division of Juvenile Justice facilities in recent weeks.
Dozens of young people locked up in California’s youth prison system have tested positive for COVID-19 — the latest outbreak at facilities that have struggled to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
As of Wednesday, 49 youth held at Division of Juvenile Justice facilities have active cases, according to the public agency’s pandemic tracker. Since the start of the pandemic, another 241 young adults at the prisons have tested positive — roughly 45% of the total population — and more than 280 staff.
The publicly available data show that just 64% of people who work in California’s youth prison system are vaccinated.
For the mother of a recently infected youth from Central California, the past few weeks have been terrifying. She requested that The Imprint withhold her name to protect her privacy but said her son has an underlying health condition, leaving him at a higher high risk of serious complications.
Her concerns have been growing. In a visit earlier this year, she said her son and staff at the facility did not wear masks, and no one took her temperature upon entering the prison. She also said she believed her son had been transferred to a cell where an infected person had previously lived, and it had not been cleaned or sanitized when he moved in.
“It makes me sick to my stomach,” the youth’s mother said. “People are losing their lives just over the carelessness of people not taking precautions. And this is a place where my son is supposed to be safe.”
Michael Sicilia, a spokesperson for the Division of Juvenile Justice, wrote in an email to The Imprint that since the latest spike began about two weeks ago, most youth have remained asymptomatic, and there have been no serious illnesses or hospitalizations.
Policies posted on the agency’s website require all staff and youth to wear face coverings, have access to sanitizers, and maintain physical distancing at all times. All staff are required to wear masks while at prisons and to use N95 masks when in contact with youth.
Built to house the state’s most serious youth offenders, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) currently holds 665 young people at three prisons and a fire camp. Many are sent to facilities after committing offenses such as murder or armed robbery.
Maureen Washburn, an analyst for the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice said the latest outbreak is unsurprising, given the prison’s design and the many unvaccinated staff who work there.
“Now that we’re getting close to winter and numbers across the country are increasing, the coronavirus is becoming a really scary reality again,” she said. “Young people describe feeling like they’re sitting ducks at DJJ, that they don’t have control over whether they stay healthy or not.”
Youth confined in Division of Juvenile Justice prisons have suffered several coronavirus outbreaks, including scores of young people who tested positive in the summer of 2020 at facilities in Camarillo and Stockton, and dozens more last winter.
Now, after the discovery of a new strain of coronavirus known as Omicron and a confirmed case in San Francisco, fears for the safety of incarcerated populations have been renewed.
On Wednesday, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and 59 other youth justice and civil rights organizations sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), stating that COVID-19 has once again spread quickly through Division of Juvenile Justice facilities because of “cramped, prison-like conditions, including open dormitories” and because staff sometimes interact with youth without masks.
“As winter approaches, it is the responsibility of our state leaders to use this new knowledge to save lives and reduce the harmful collateral effects of future outbreaks,” the letter reads, referring to the new variant. “This duty is greatest in congregate settings, like DJJ, where Californians are living at heightened risk.”
Justice advocates want state officials to further reduce the number of detained youth by granting early release to the medically vulnerable and those who are within six months of their parole date. Additionally, they are calling on the juvenile justice agency to strictly enforce mask requirements, improve transparency of COVID-19 data, and better promote vaccines.
In his email, Sicilia, the state spokesman for youth corrections, underscored policy stating that staff who are unvaccinated must be tested twice a week and wear an N95 mask at all times. The agency has provided vaccination clinics onsite and at nearby facilities on multiple occasions, he said.
California has ordered all prison workers to be vaccinated by Jan. 12 unless they have a religious or medical exemption, but that plan was temporarily blocked last week by a federal appeals court.
The number of youth detained in state-run facilities is at a record low due to an ongoing effort to overhaul California’s juvenile justice system. Last year, Newsom and the California Legislature agreed on a plan that will phase out the state’s youth prison system, with hundreds housed closer to home in local juvenile detention facilities. Since July, all new intakes to the Division of Juvenile Justice have been halted, with all new arrivals now being held in county juvenile halls, camps and ranches run by probation departments.
Even as the state prisons prepare to close by June 2023, a report released this month by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice describes young people struggling during the pandemic, and at continued risk of contagion. They spend much of their days confined to a cell, with scaled-back opportunities for rehabilitative programming. That has led to more young people showing signs of suicidality, the center reported.
As consecutive waves of COVID-19 have battered California’s youth prisons, the Central California mother said she is grateful she’s able to receive near-daily calls from her son. While his coronavirus infection left him sore and fatigued, she said that to her relief he was ultimately spared the worst symptoms.
But she remains worried about his health and well-being from afar, and feels powerless.
“I have no control,” she said. “I can’t make sure that he’s OK and these people have my son’s life in their hands and they don’t care.”