Coronavirus infections in California’s juvenile lockups are growing at disturbing rates among young people and staff overseeing them, as cases reach new peaks nationwide during a deadly winter surge.
In Los Angeles County, 236 youth – or 69% of all those detailed at the county’s two juvenile halls – are currently under quarantine, according to Probation Department data.
Positive COVID-19 tests are also growing among staff and youth at California’s three youth prisons and a fire camp run by the Division of Juvenile Justice. There are currently 18 active cases of COVID-19 among youth at state facilities, for a cumulative total of 115 cases among the more than 700 incarcerated. Among staff, there have been 85 positive tests, with 37 in the past two weeks.
Despite the high infection rate, division spokesperson Michael Sicilia said to date, no young person has developed serious symptoms.
In Los Angeles County, 108 youth and 47 probation staff working in juvenile detention facilities have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. That number grew by 15 staffers this week, with county employees moving back and forth from the confined settings into their homes and communities.
Last month, Probation Commissioner Randy Herbon wrote a letter to interim Chief Probation Officer Ray Leyva describing the challenges facing these staffers, as well as concerns that juvenile probation staff are not regularly tested. Some have had to stay at home to quarantine several times, eating up their allotted sick time.
The way the department has treated its employees is “deplorable,” Herbon said at a probation commission meeting Thursday. “It views staff members as parts of a machine that can be easily replaced.”
Inside L.A.’s youth lockups, whole units have had to quarantine recently, according to probation officials, with those testing positive being confined in further isolation. Youth in lockdown still attend court, school and virtual visits with family, Bureau Chief Mark Garcia said Thursday.
“During that time of quarantine, the unit at the halls is basically treated as a family living group,” he said.
But many advocates remain concerned about young people’s access to education.
Megan Stanton-Trehan, director of the Youth Justice Education Clinic at Loyola Law School, said many of her clients were currently under quarantine. Despite promises of internet access in all facilities, she said some youth were still receiving packets in place of virtual school and that the Probation Department has been slow to distribute some computers.
This is particularly troubling for the high number of students with learning disabilities, she said.
In the youth prisons, conditions are also worsening.
After a summer surge, infections remained stable until a sudden spike in the Division of Juvenile Justice facilities at the end of November. That caused the youth prison system to halt transfers from county juvenile facilities on Nov. 23, a practice that some advocates said had for too long been contributing to the spread of COVID-19 cases in adult and juvenile lockups.
“With full knowledge of the risks of prison transfer, DJJ continued moving youth into its facilities from juvenile halls across the state,” according to a recent report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
Maureen Washburn, the center’s policy analyst, said her group is urging the state’s youth prison system to halt new admissions from counties and to make testing available to all young people upon request.
Advocates have also called on state officials to release youth offenders who are within six months of their parole date and those who are medically vulnerable.
Meanwhile, facilities that had managed to keep out the deadly virus are no longer so fortunate. Santa Clara County had its first coronavirus infections at its juvenile hall and the William F. James Ranch over the last month. Since Nov. 28, nine youth and four staff have tested positive.
“Unless there is a demonstrated need to hold these children in custody, then they should be out because obviously, a facility has proven itself incapable of helping them and keeping them healthy,” public defender Sajid Khan told KRON last week. “Hoping this is a wake-up call.”