With just 1 in 4 of Louisiana’s incarcerated youth fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, children’s advocates say the state should do more to protect them, including requiring vaccination among staff, as the more transmissible delta variant spreads.
So far, the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice says officials are comfortable with current efforts to combat the pandemic in its juvenile lockups, according to a report by the Louisiana Illuminator, a nonprofit news organization in Baton Rouge.
The 24% rate of full vaccination among the 205 youth who were locked up as of mid-August is higher than the 5% rate among the state’s unincarcerated 5- to 17-year-olds and the 18% among those 18 to 29 years old. But experience with COVID-19 has shown that people who live in close quarters — like juvenile detention centers — are at higher risk of infection because adequate social distancing is much harder to achieve.
To make matters worse, evidence is mounting that the delta variant seems to make young people “sicker and quicker” than the original strain of the virus. People in the state’s adult prisons are vaccinated at significantly higher rates than their counterparts in juvenile detention, thanks in part to a small canteen-credit incentive program offered to inmates.
For now, though, the state Office of Juvenile Justice has no plans to offer any incentive to kids in their detention centers. “We feel like we’re making steady progress,” said Beth Touchet-Morgan, executive management adviser. “It kind of creeped up a little bit, and that’s just incremental. That’s how we’ll have to do it. We’ll have to talk to each kid and each family and find the right time.”
Vaccination of juveniles requires the consent of a parent or guardian.
Rachel Gassert, policy director at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said the agency needs to do more for incarcerated youth during the pandemic than isolating those who are infected, curtailing family visits, reducing educational opportunities and a few other measures. For example, Gassert said all detention center staff should be required to be vaccinated, and credible messengers should be brought in to educate youth on the benefits of vaccination. Existing efforts, she said in a statement to the Illuminator, are “counterproductive to rehabilitation and potentially dangerous.”