‘Pacing and Praying’: Jailed Youths Seek Release as Virus Spreads

While some states have moved to release adults from prisons where the coronavirus poses a threat, efforts to free juveniles from detention have met resistance.

At least two youths and a staff member have tested positive for the coronavirus at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.
Credit...Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — A 17-year-old girl spends nearly 24 hours a day in an 11-foot-by-11-foot room in the Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center, the benignly named detention facility in rural Maryland where the coronavirus first entered the state’s juvenile justice system.

With her classes suspended and her counselor on leave, she steps out only to use a bathroom she shares with five other girls. Her human interactions are down to 10-minute phone calls with family members, who are barred from visiting.

At the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, at least one staff member and two youths have tested positive for the virus. A 17-year-old and three other boys in his unit are reusing masks when they leave their rooms to shower. They speak to each other through the crack at the bottom of the door and eat and sleep in the same room as their toilets, but often lack soap.

“I have been very nervous about possibly getting infected,” a 14-year-old in the Baltimore facility declared in a sworn statement to his public defender last week, one of several in which incarcerated youths detailed deteriorating conditions, hoping to persuade the state’s high court to set them free. The New York Times is not identifying them because juvenile arrest records are sealed. “When I first found out about the Covid-19 positive staff member, I started pacing and praying.”

Maryland is one of three states, with Texas and Pennsylvania, where lawyers have sought the mass release of juvenile offenders who have underlying health conditions or are determined not to pose a danger to society. While some states, such as New York and California, moved quickly to release nonviolent and older adults from prisons that have emerged as hotbeds for the virus’s spread, courts and state law enforcement leaders have been hesitant to extend the same benefit to children.

On Friday, Maryland’s highest court denied an emergency petition by the state’s Office of Public Defender to order the immediate release of the state’s youngest, sickest offenders, as well as the 58 percent of detainees in juvenile jails and 74 percent in youth prisons who are being held for nonviolent offenses, misdemeanors or technical violations of probation.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a similar petition last week to release about 2,000 youths from detention centers, county jails or long-term correctional or residential facilities. The court conceded that the “potential outbreak of Covid-19 in facilities housing juveniles in detention poses an undeniable threat,” but said a mass release “fails to take into account the individual circumstances of each juvenile, including any danger to them or to others, as well as the diversity of situations present within individual institutions and communities.”

This week, the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in Houston is preparing to argue for the release of its clients who are being held at the county’s juvenile detention center, where at least two youths and several staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus. Its lawsuit says the conditions inside the detention center are dangerous and unconstitutional because youths at risk for exposure are being held in their rooms for all but 30 minutes a day.

Advocates for youth offenders say the lack of urgency stems from a misconception that people have about both the juvenile justice system and the coronavirus: Children are spared the worst.

Late last month, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that shared spaces and close quarters make corrections and detention facilities “unique challenges” for virus containment, youth advocates in more than 30 states said juvenile facilities were not equipped to protect youths from the virus. Since then, staff members and youths at facilities in at least a half-dozen states have tested positive. In Washington, D.C., a staff member in the juvenile justice system has died.

“The reality is a lot of the circumstances under which they are living in are every bit as abysmal as adults, and every bit as likely to create this so-called petri dish for spread and contagion,” said Marsha Levick, the chief legal officer of Juvenile Law Center. “If we get behind this, we’re going to lose kids.”

Like their adult counterparts, the roughly 45,000 American youths detained on any given day often sleep, eat, go to school and spend their recreational time in forced proximity. They are in contact with staff members who cycle in and out of the community. The steps recommended for the general public to protect themselves — social distancing, frequent hand-washing, limiting contact with people outside their families — are impossible.

The response in some facilities has been to lock children in their rooms for more than 23 hours a day, the equivalent of solitary confinement, which can increase suicidal thoughts and cause long-term trauma.

Chicago has moved to expedite emergency hearings for youth releases. California has sought to reduce its incarcerated populations by halting intake of juvenile offenders for 30 days. But lawyers say that without clear orders from the nation’s highest courts, the response will be uneven. “Every county has different judges sitting at different times, which means every kid will have a different shot,” Ms. Levick said.

Judges and state law enforcement agencies have argued that extraordinary measures like mass releases could undermine the individualized approach that differentiates the juvenile and adult justice systems.

Attorneys general in Maryland and the district attorneys in Pennsylvania said that blanket release would fail to take into account the unique circumstances of the youths, such as the fact that some may not have safe homes to return to.

“Detained, committed or imprisoned juveniles face and pose risks that must be balanced carefully — a public policy judgment,” the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which represented the Department of Juvenile Services, said in its response to the petition.

Just a week before, the same office had called on Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland to employ “a broader and faster release of a larger swath of inmates,” from adult prisons to “prevent a catastrophic outbreak of Covid-19 in our prisons and jails.”

Instead of a broad order, the chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals issued guidance late Monday encouraging the state’s district judges to work with local juvenile justice officials to quickly identify youths who could be eligible for release, and to consider in detainment decisions factors such as their pre-existing health conditions, their threat to public safety and whether facilities pose a risk to them. It also requires that courts hold hearings every 14 days.

Meanwhile, the virus is spreading.

When the public defender’s office filed its brief, no staff members or youths had tested positive Maryland’s juvenile justice facilities. By the time it was denied a week later, there were six confirmed cases — two staff members, three youths and a contractor. On Monday, when Maryland logged its first adult inmate death in the prison system, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services confirmed that the number had risen to 11.

The department confirmed that it had been holding youths in “medical isolation,” and providing protective gear to the youths and staff, as well as ordering deep cleanings at facilities and ensuring access to hygiene items. The youths now have soap in their rooms, as well as access to distance learning and telepsychiatry, the agency said.

The agency reiterated its stance in legal filings that it was continually reviewing the juvenile detention and committed populations to identify youths who could be released, but “the best interest of the child weighs heavily when formulating recommendations and when moving to bring a youth’s case to the attention of the local courts for review.”

Lawyers say the exposed in the juvenile system are as young as 10, and as medically fragile as a girl who is 36 weeks pregnant. The majority are black and Latino, who are getting the virus more than whites.

Jenny Egan, the chief attorney for the public defender’s juvenile division in Baltimore, said many of its clients had severe cognitive and intellectual delays, physical ailments and had “experienced mind-bending amounts of neglect, abuse and abandonment.”

“They already feel like the world thinks the worst of them, and has already said, ‘You belong in a cage,’” she said. “And now they’re learning that their cage is not just a dehumanizing humiliation but actually may be a death sentence, and no one has come to get them out.”

In one sworn statement, a 17-year-old in Baltimore who had contact with an infected staff member wrote, “To occupy the roughly 24 hours I am alone in my room, I have been given one book, a deck of cards, a puzzle and word search.”

“None of these items keep me calm,” he said. “I am very scared right now.”

Victims’ rights groups have tried to rally opposition to mass releases. The Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center argued that what public defenders are calling technical violations of probation may be more dangerous than that. The group said a technical violation could include “if a juvenile probationer decides to hang around with his MS-13 associates” — members of a notorious transnational gang — instead of checking in with their probation officer.

The group also warned that the youths could become another public safety liability.

“Some could, in light of the current health emergency, be tempted to vandalize and loot closed retail stores,” the organization wrote.

Vincent Schiraldi, a former director of the Washington, D.C., juvenile justice agency and a senior research scientist at the Columbia University School of Social Work, called such concerns a stale scare tactic. Nationally, juvenile crime has declined 71 percent since 1997, and the number of incarcerated youths has dropped 59 percent.

“There’s a false belief that the only thing keeping us safe is mass incarceration,” Mr. Schiraldi said, “and we cling to it at the risk of public health.”

Mr. Schiraldi’s organization Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, whose members have run juvenile facilities, wrote in a brief supporting the Maryland release petition that “unlike their wards, infected staff go home at the end of their shifts, transmitting the virus to their families and their communities.”

The group also anticipated that staff members would soon stop showing up. “It’s one thing to sign up for when kids wrestle each other to the ground,” Mr. Schiraldi said. “It’s another thing to sign up to get sick and die.”

A 15-year-old asthmatic teenager who won release from a Baltimore detention facility where he was being held on a motor vehicle charge said he thought at first that he might be safer in there than at home with his grandmother. Then the same staff who told his group their “immune systems could handle it” started wearing gloves and masks. He prepared for the worst.

“I was trying to stay six feet away from people, but we really can’t in there — it’s tight,” the teenager said. “And then I was thinking: It doesn’t even matter. Everybody was breathing the same air.”