Coronavirus in juvenile detention is a 'nightmare scenario,' doctors and advocates say

The coronavirus is already appearing in juvenile detention centers. Experts say it'll get worse unless children are released.
Illustration of children in masks at a juvenile detention center looking out from cell door windows.
The coronavirus pandemic has spurred a flurry of activity to release children from juvenile detention centers.Anuj Shrestha / for NBC News

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By Tyler Kingkade

Earlier this month, a boy at the New Orleans juvenile detention center refused to attend classes. He wouldn't even leave his room.

Christy Sampson-Kelly, an administrator for the school in the detention center, run by a nonprofit called the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, said she went to his room with a social worker to see what was wrong. The boy said he was worried about catching COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. He thought staying in his room was the safest thing he could do.

Sampson-Kelly said the boy told her, "Miss Christy, I just don't want to die in here."

Many of the 47 children in the New Orleans Juvenile Justice Intervention Center are afraid, Sampson-Kelly said. While some don't want to leave the safety of their rooms, others fear that if there is an outbreak in the facility, they'll be restricted to those rooms, essentially placed in solitary confinement. For many detained youth, their primary caretaker is a grandparent, and they're scared that someone they love will die of the virus before they get out. As of Thursday, 83 people in Louisiana had died because of COVID-19, among the highest death tolls of any state.

One boy at the New Orleans juvenile detention center recently became alarmed when he saw that Sampson-Kelly wasn't wearing a mask like some of the other staff, she said. He worried that if staff members like Sampson-Kelly became ill, the school would stop holding classes. "If you get sick, nobody is coming," the boy told her.

Like many juvenile detention facilities nationwide, the New Orleans center has eliminated in-person family visits. Classes have been temporarily replaced with packets the kids complete on their own. Social workers and religious staff are not able to visit. Orleans Parish Juvenile Court has closed until April, and so far it hasn't held hearings by videoconferencing, delaying a chance for the children's lawyers to argue that they should be allowed to go home.

"They're worried about being left behind," Sampson-Kelly said. "They're an afterthought. I think in the efforts to slow down the virus and be responsible, we just said, 'Kids, stay home,' but no one thought about our kids."

Kyshun Webster, director of the New Orleans juvenile detention center, said his team is "taking every measure to prevent the introduction or spread of the virus through social distancing, regimented sanitizing throughout the day, and reducing the population of youth and staff."

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The coronavirus pandemic has spurred a flurry of activity to release children from juvenile detention centers. Doctors, former probation and juvenile detention officials and youth rights advocates say it's the only way to prevent an outbreak in one of the facilities, which could endanger both the children and the staff. Public defenders nationwide are filing motions asking states and counties to release youth who are not safety risks.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

While some detention centers are working to let children go home or have pledged not to incarcerate additional minors, release efforts have been bogged down by coronavirus-related court closures and the process of reviewing each case. And time is of the essence, according to physicians, lawyers and other advocates.

Staff at juvenile detention centers in Connecticut, Georgia and New York have already tested positive for COVID-19. Citing those reports, the Legal Aid Society sued the New York City government Wednesday demanding it release 22 teens ages 13 to 17 before they become infected. A Law Department spokesman said that the city will need to review the suit and that "health and safety is a priority of the city."

On Thursday, the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center in Houston revealed that a teenager in the facility had tested positive for the coronavirus and was in quarantine. The county's probation department said that the facility would be cleaned and that children and staff would be monitored.

"We are on the brink of the nightmare scenario," warned Dr. Kim Cullen, a physician in Denver and one of the authors of an open letter to governors and state justice officials from a group of concerned doctors.

"If there isn't swift action to move children out of these environments where this virus can spread like wildfire," Cullen said, "we are just providing the kindling."

Experts warn the virus will spread in detention centers

Researchers estimate 16,000 children are held in detention centers nationwide — although the government doesn't monitor how many are locked up each year — and a majority are in the facilities for minor offenses or probation violations or they are awaiting adjudication. Another 4,500 minors are in adult jails and prisons. They're disproportionately children of color, and experts say they're essentially sitting ducks as the coronavirus spreads.

"These kids can't go anywhere, but staff are cycling in and out," said Tim Curry, legal director of the National Juvenile Defender Center, a nonprofit children's advocacy group. "Whatever contact they're having outside is going to come into the facility."

Other closed environments have had outbreaks once the virus was introduced. At a nursing home near Seattle, staff who worked while they were sick fueled the spread of COVID-19, resulting in more than 30 deaths. Over 800 people who traveled on two Princess cruise ships tested positive for COVID-19. If the virus enters a juvenile detention center, it will be difficult to contain, said Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University and former director of the juvenile corrections in Washington, D.C.

"There's not a lot of great air circulation, and the only way to keep them from congregating is locking them in their cells, which you shouldn't do," Schiraldi said, because isolation has been shown to cause extreme psychological distress. "Once the virus comes in," he added, "your options are very limited."

Most young people who contract the coronavirus develop mild cases or show no symptoms at all. But COVID-19 is a higher risk for people with compromised immune systems, and children in the juvenile justice system are more likely to have underlying health issues. Detention can exacerbate those problems. Public health experts also worry about older staff members getting sick.

Dr. Homer Venters, a physician and epidemiologist who oversaw efforts to contain the outbreak of the H1N1 virus at New York's Rikers Island jail, said that even if there is physical space to isolate those infected by COVID-19, detention facilities are likely to face staff shortages once employees get sick. And if hospital staff can't stock enough personal protective equipment, detention centers certainly won't. In addition, Venters said, there's a good chance adolescents who feel ill won't report it to detention center staff.

"They're not ready to handle an outbreak," Venters said. "The community has forgotten about them, the Centers for Disease Control and state departments of health, governors' offices — they haven't paid much attention to what goes on in these places. What I fear is we're in for a very, very horrible awakening to just what we've done."

A mixed response to releasing children

Dozens of civil rights groups in 22 states sent letters urging governors and state officials last week to release incarcerated children and stop adding new ones to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in detention facilities.

The reaction from states has been mixed. California issued an order this week to temporarily halt adding children to state-run detention facilities. Nebraska's judicial system responded that it has no plans to implement a blanket policy on juvenile cases during the pandemic.

"They don't feel like that is necessary yet," said Christine Henningsen, director of Nebraska Youth Advocates, a nonprofit trying to get children released. "I hope it doesn't take a case of mass spread within a detention center or corrections facility to make that happen, because then it's too late."

Globally, several countries have started releasing adults from prisons to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. But in the United States, the federal government doesn't have the power to order a mass release of people incarcerated in local facilities. The release process for both juveniles and adults varies by state or county, and governors' ability to order people released is limited.

"That just underscores the fact that we don't have one solution or one answer right now," said Marsha Levick, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, a public interest law firm

Keir Bradford-Grey, Philadelphia's chief public defender, said her office has asked for any children held on misdemeanors or who have medical conditions to be released to their parents or guardians. But each case has to be approved by the district attorney's office and juvenile probation before it can go before a judge.

'Fighting tooth and nail to get the kids out'

In cities like San Francisco, the effort is simply speeding up what was already in the works. The city's Board of Supervisors voted in February to close the juvenile hall by the end of 2021, but now that COVID-19 is circulating, public defenders have filed motions to get every one of their clients released.

The San Francisco public defender's office has been inundated with calls from families begging for help getting their children released. According to a letter that Manohar Raju, the city's chief public defender, sent to the juvenile probation department, one "child who was recently brought to juvenile hall was exhibiting flu-like symptoms and was quarantined in his room for three days," although he ultimately tested negative for COVID-19.

However, the probation department has objected to several releases on the grounds that the plans for how the children would be monitored weren't detailed enough, according to Patricia Lee, managing attorney of the public defender's juvenile unit in San Francisco.

"We are fighting tooth and nail to get the kids out, because it is an untenable situation," Lee said.

Katherine Weinstein Miller, San Francisco's chief juvenile probation officer, said that when possible, they'll release youth home with appropriate supervision. but they "have a responsibility to evaluate whether proposed release plans will be sufficient to support our young people and provide for community safety, and to offer feedback to our justice system partners."

The logistics are changing rapidly thanks to social distancing orders that have caused courthouses to close and staff to work remotely. Samantha Buckingham, who runs a juvenile justice clinic at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said her team found out with less than 24 hours' notice that a court was closing for days at a time.

"This is something that is constantly changing, and our defenders have to move as quickly as COVID-19 is," said Sherika Shnider, a staff attorney at the National Juvenile Defender Center, which started collecting and sharing court motions and affidavits to assist attorneys seeking release of detained youth.

A social distancing challenge

Mark Mertens, administrator of the Division of Youth and Family Services in Milwaukee, said all minors brought to the county's juvenile detention center are being placed in a separate unit for 14 days to ensure they don't have coronavirus symptoms. The facility has space for this because it has 120 beds but only 60 incarcerated youth, Mertens said. The facility has also purchased additional games to keep the children occupied, because their group classes have been replaced with individual homework packets, he said.

Mertens said he's also been working to reduce the detention center's population. He said his staff has met with public defenders to discuss which cases they could present in court to release children from detention.

"Even though we are trying to practice social distancing, it's hard to do," Mertens said. "The fewer kids we have, the more effective we can be to keep them from being contagious or contracting the illness."

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Still, anxiety remains high among incarcerated children. In New Orleans, with the juvenile court closed and regular classes on hold in the detention center, one boy in the facility recently told Sampson-Kelly that he feels like he's "standing still."

"These young people are just incredibly isolated and scared," said David Domenici, executive director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, the nonprofit that operates the New Orleans detention center's school.

This week, the organization asked for volunteers to send letters to incarcerated youth over the next four weeks to let them know they're not alone. But Domenici believes the real solution is to let the children go home.

"That's the only sound moral and safe position," he said.