Youth needs seem to be the easiest to neglect, apparently even if their lives are at stake in the middle of a pandemic.
On March 19 the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, an organization I work with as a Justice Advisor, sent a letter calling on Gov. Ned Lamont, Chief Administrative Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, and Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook to implement measures to reduce the detained youth population and publicly share their plan to address the COVID-19 crisis in the juvenile justice system.
The letter was part of a nationwide effort to get kids out of prison. Signed by ten other organizations working to improve the lives of Connecticut residents, we demanded that our state leaders take action to immediately and safely remove all youth from Manson Youth Institute, York Correctional Institute, REGIONS secure, and detention centers in Bridgeport and Hartford – but as I write this, we have yet to hear from these officials about their plans for our system-involved youth.
First and foremost, I want to say getting kids out of the juvenile system and preventing kids from entering has always been my priority, but with the immediate risk of COVID-19 it is more urgent than ever that we prioritize getting our young people out of incarceration.
Each day we learn new things about this disease, but two things have been clear from the beginning. The best protections against transmitting or contracting the coronavirus are taking proper sanitary precautions, especially through frequent handwashing, and maintaining your distance from other individuals. This makes prisons and detention centers, not known for their cleanliness or roomy accommodations, perfect environments for COVID-19 to quickly spread. Knowing this, activists and organizations have been calling on state leaders to drastically reduce the number of detained and incarcerated individuals, but removing youth from detention facilities has often been left out of this larger conversation.
In normal times, being confined in prisons or other facilities negatively affects youth physically, mentally, and emotionally. But in these are extraordinary times, jails and other confined spaces are not safe places for kids. Due to COVID, these young people are at a higher risk of being negatively impacted. In addition to the added fear of becoming sick, with visitations cut off, system-involved youth are unintentionally being harmed by policies meant to protect them.
I understand the immediate need to keep as many people out of these facilities as possible, but stopping visitations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will only remain successful up until the moment an individual that works in a facility brings the virus in – then it will spread rapidly, and employees within the juvenile and adult systems have already begun testing positive for COVID-19. Youth in these facilities do not have the luxury of being able to protect or distance themselves from others the way you and I do.
The only solution that will have an impact long term is for our state to halt new detentions and incarcerations and release every youth that is not a substantial or immediate safety risk to others. Now more than ever we must be working with families to utilize other resources to address normal youthful and adolescent misbehavior.
In that, our state must prioritize transitioning out youth at a higher medical risk due to underlying conditions or illnesses, such as asthma. The state can also quickly decrease the detained youth population by releasing individuals that are currently being held pre-trial or are otherwise soon to be released. Ultimately, the state must work to transition each and every young person out of detention or incarceration.
For the health and safety of kids currently under the care of the state, these facilities must work with each individual youth to ensure they are being released into a safe environment, into the care of a responsible adult they trust, and with the necessary resources available to meet their needs. The Court Support Services Division has already begun working to release youth in their care, but releasing all youth will require a number of government agencies working together. Our Governor has the power to remove unnecessary roadblocks by charging state agencies to work with the DOC and the Judicial branch, and it is becoming more imperative each day that he take action to get kids out.
I know this is a scary time for everyone. Our actions now must be made to include all individuals in our society, especially the most vulnerable among us. Right now, there are under 150 youth, under the age of 18, in systems throughout the state. While no kid should be detained, period, this number of individuals means this problem is one we can solve.
We must take bold, urgent action to immediately transition youth out of the facilities. During these difficult and uncertain times we need to implement any and all solutions that can save lives – and on protecting system-involved youth, we simply need to make decisions that show we care about their safety.
If we don’t work to release them, we are saying their lives are expendable. They are not expandable to me – are they to you? Sign on to our letter calling on state leaders to make sure system-involved youth are not left behind during this pandemic.
Tenille Bonilla is a Justice Advisor for the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.