September 29th, 2022 • Anamely Salgado
Tracking COVID Protocol Transparency in Youth Detention Facilities
More than two-and-a-half years after the first stay-at-home order was issued in California, the United States continues to grapple with the impact of the COVID pandemic. While businesses were instructed to close, non-essential workers were required to stay at home, and schools were forced to shut down in-person instruction, youth detention centers failed to provide clear and effective protocol to reduce the spread of the virus. Close proximity is inevitable in youth detention facilities; it is within the confined spaces of these facilities that youth must eat, sleep, and study until the date of their court hearings or releases. These facilities, however, are not entirely enclosed. Youth are brought in or transferred out, staff clock in and out, and loved ones visit.
Although a clear and effective protocol for reducing the spread of COVID within youth detention facilities is crucial, state and local policies have been variable. While the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) released a guide to create a safe environment for youth in its facilities’ care, “the OJJDP cannot mandate that states follow guidance provided outside its statutory authority.”
The UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project has largely focused on adult populations. However, there are over 36,000 youth detained in 625 detention centers across the country. Because the risk of COVID transmission in these centers is also significant, we have compiled information available on state government websites regarding the steps that youth detention facilities have taken to limit the spread of the virus. Transparency regarding these policies is important given that detained youth are a vulnerable population and less likely to be able to advocate for themselves or rally support outside their facilities.
Our COVID-19 Safety Protocols by State spreadsheet tracks each state’s publication of information regarding its youth detention facilities’ COVID interventions, including basic hygiene practices (e.g., handwashing), social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting of common areas, and mask use. Additionally, our spreadsheet tracks each state’s disclosure of COVID screening, testing, vaccination, and infections among detained youth and youth detention center staff. Twenty-two states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico do not provide relevant information on their youth detention departments’ websites. Some states provide limited information. Notably, no state’s website includes information for every category we tracked. For example, Missouri only discloses changes in visitation and mask policy for youth detention facilities, while Maine, Ohio, and South Carolina only provide data on COVID cases among their staff and detained youth, but do not provide information on operations or policy changes. Florida states that its detention facilities are practicing social distancing by keeping youth in small groups of less than ten and keeping them six feet apart, but it does not provide information regarding the use of masks when in these groups.
Websites also vary in how current their information is. The Alaska Department of Family and Community Services, Division of Juvenile Justice’s updated their Visitor Protocols and COVID Prevention and Response Measures documentin August 14, 2020. In contrast, the California Division of Youth Justice’s Pandemic Response page contains updates from July 29, 2022.
Because youth care extends beyond physical health, our team also collected information about changes to visitation and schooling, as well as steps facilities have taken to improve engagement with families. For example, the Illinois Department of Youth Justice states, “We have increased youth access to phones and eliminated all costs to outgoing phone calls from youth. Additionally, youth have increased access to video calls with the hopes that they will remain in close contact with their family and friends.” Likewise, facilities in Alabama, California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Utah have increased the number of phone calls available to youth and have implemented teleconferencing software for virtual visitation.
Finally, we sought to find any mention of government or facility leaders’ efforts to reduce the number of individuals confined to their facilities as reducing the number of detained and incarcerated youth is an important tool to reduce youth and staff’s exposure to COVID. For example, Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Youth Justice Services states that it “encourages all counties to scrutinize youth being considered for placement in a Youth Development Centers/Youth Forestry Camps, and to only place youth who pose such a significant risk to themselves and/or the community that no other option exists,” and asks counties to, “recommend release to the courts of all youth that can reasonably by released.”
Without consistent, quality reporting from state agencies, the public cannot know if information regarding health precautions is unavailable simply because the states’ websites are not updated frequently or because precautions are not being taken. COVID cannot be confined to the walls of each detention center, so preventing an outbreak within these spaces is in the best interest of detained youth as well as that of the surrounding communities. We hope to see improvements in facilities’ safety measures and information transparency, and we will continue to update the safety protocol spreadsheet to track modifications to states’ youth detention facilities’ COVID protocols.
October 3rd, 2022 • Elif Yücel
Only 16% of youth detention facilities nationwide have reported COVID data. Specifically, only 1% county-run facilities, which make up over half of the youth facilities, have reported COVID data. We must do better. Just as counties have kept track of the spread of COVID in K-12 schools, equal emphasis should be placed on tracking the spread in juvenile justice facilities. As the pandemic continues and new variants arise, the public must be able to access information on the spread of the virus.