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“Lina” hasn’t seen her 17-year-old son since March 6 when she last visited him in Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, just a week before the probation department ended family visits in the county because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Mom, don’t come,” she remembers him saying. “I don’t know until when you can [come back].”  

It’s been a month since the Los Angeles County Probation Department first announced the rolling out of precautions to minimize the risk of the spread of the virus in its juvenile correctional camps and halls. Yet parents like Lina worry that youths aren’t able to exercise physical distancing measures and access protective gear. Her son says he was given a mask just last week and he continues to share three showers and urinals with 20 other youths.

The Probation Department says it has extended phone privileges for youths and is implementing virtual visits through platforms like Google Duo, but Lina’s son only gets one free call per week so she stays in touch with him through collect phone calls. It’s been over a month since he’s spoken to a therapist for his anxiety and depression and the confusion around the pandemic only makes things worse. “I’m terrified,” says Lina. “How do I know that they’re taking precautions with my son?” 

Juvenile correctional facilities across the country are grappling with the spread of the virus. The novel coronavirus has so far infected 196 young people and 332 staff who work in those facilities, according to The Sentencing Project, an organization tracking cases nationally. A facility in Virginia has the country’s worst known outbreak of the novel coronavirus at a juvenile correctional facility with 28 young people so far testing positive, according to The Sentencing Project’s Josh Rovner. In Los Angeles, probation staff in Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

LA families and advocates fear that the county probation department, the largest in the country, is falling short in its implementation of hygiene and physical distancing practices, making young people especially vulnerable to the virus that has devastated institutional facilities. As the virus surges across the country, families are pressing for the broad release of incarcerated youths. For those who will remain in correctional facilities, families and advocates are asking the probation department to fulfill health and safety guidelines and provide access to online learning and mental health resources.

Last week, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the majority of people who tested positive in institutional facilities were asymptomatic. As of May 1, 3,273 people had tested positive, “underscoring the need for us to be able to test at our institutional settings.” In LA County, 358 youths are currently held at juvenile halls and 185 youths are in camps. The county says it has tested 16 youths and the tests have come back negative. Since March 2, the juvenile hall population has decreased by 34% and juvenile camps saw a 33% reduction, according to the probation department.

The Youth Justice Coalition, an organization led by system-involved youths, families, and formerly incarcerated people along with dozens of other regional organizations, joined families to demand the release of incarcerated youths. Advocates penned a letter to local and state officials last month with a wide range of demands, including the immediate release of youths detained for technical violations and status offenses, and for those held for misdemeanor and low-level felony arrests and bench warrants.As some juvenile judges deny youths early release during the pandemic, the Youth Justice Coalition is asking LA County probation chiefs to exercise greater authority by immediately releasing eligible, low-risk juvenile detainees.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against California Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, alleging that continued confinement in light of inadequate health conditions violates inmates’ constitutional rights. The lawsuit calls for the reduction of county jail and juvenile facility populations considering “the looming threat of exponential spread of COVID-19” in facilities. It cites the inability to maintain social distancing in facilities and the lack of proper hygiene to prevent transmission of COVID-19. The isolation of juveniles because of COVID-19 constitutes an “inappropriate and psychologically damaging intervention” likely to harm youths who already have a history of trauma.

The LA County Probation Department says it has issued masks to all staff and youths, is limiting the congregation of youths to small groups of six or fewer, and conducting staggered meals, among other social distancing strategies. It is working on setting up virtual calls using platforms like Microsoft Teams and Google Duo in “family connection rooms” where they say youths will have access to smartphones and laptops. The Department of Mental Health also plans to implement “virtual counseling.” As for schooling, the LA County Office of Education (LACOE) says it has tested remote instruction at some halls and camps and planned to begin distance learning at all sites last week.  

The probation department’s reports of advancements in remote learning contrast with what families are hearing from youths inside correctional facilities. Youths struggle to fill in days where they otherwise would be studying or taking arts programming, and keeping busy means skirting social distancing protocols.

Ladell Bernardez’s son is at Campus Kilpatrick, a facility touted by LA County as the leader in the probation department’s approach to small-group rehabilitation treatment. LACOE said that it began to pilot remote learning for a select group of youths at Campus Kilpatrick on April 10, but Bernardez says her 18-year-old son continues to receive homework packets in lieu of classes. She says he spends his days sitting in his dorm, watching TV with other youths, and sometimes plays basketball. “It’s not in the best interest of these youth to have them sitting in a place where not only can they get infected with this deadly disease but they’re not even getting the services that are much needed for their re-entry back into society,” said Bernardez.

Megan Stanton, an education attorney and director of the Youth Justice Education Clinic at Loyola Law School, says youths across LA County facilities continued to receive packets as of last week. “The purpose of the juvenile justice system is supposed to be rehabilitation, but that isn’t happening if the youth aren’t receiving education, if they’re not receiving mental health services, if they’re not receiving anything to make sure that reentry process is going to be successful for them,” said Stanton. “We need these kids to be released immediately.”

LA moms are stressed as they wait for the updates that hinge on occasional phone calls from their children in juvenile correctional facilities. They haven’t had virtual visits or received information from the probation department, which worsens their anxiety. Lina says she depends on a network of other mothers for support and to keep herself informed. “Most people don’t understand what it’s like to have their child incarcerated and not be able to help them or take care of them,” she said.  

“It’s heartbreaking [and] it’s stressful not knowing if he’s really okay,” said Bernardez. “I can’t do anything to help him because I can’t see him.”

Nidia Bautista

Nidia Bautista is a journalist writing on migration, human rights, and gender issues in the Americas. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, NBC Latino, and Teen Vogue, among others. She's based in Los Angeles....