COVID Cases in Youth Prisons Are Cutting Vulnerable Kids Off From Their Parents

The Omicron variant brought a predictable spike in COVID cases inside prisons for children and teens. In response to to these spikes, juvenile facilities have limited educational and recreational activities, and suspended in-person visitation, further isolating incarcerated youth and increasing costs for anxious parents who are desperately trying to look out for their children.

Public outcry over pandemic-exacerbated conditions like these is, in some states, fueling efforts already underway to oppose the confinement of young people in decades-old prisons that are known to do far more harm than good in the first place.

“You have a deadly virus on top of an already toxic environment — a youth prison,” said Liz Ryan, president of Youth First Initiative, a group that campaigns to end youth incarceration, in an interview. “Even prior to the pandemic, we called into question why policy makers continue to use these kinds of prisons when the number of youths incarcerated in them continues to go down.”

In California, the number of COVID cases among incarcerated youth tripled in early January. Cases dropped in the following weeks, but only after the state suspended “intake” of new young prisoners. In-person visits were also suspended, frustrating parents and advocates who say isolation has well-documented impacts on stress levels and emotional well-being for incarcerated youth, who are often already struggling with mental health and are less likely to return to prison if they maintain strong relationships.

In 2021, California capped intrastate phone rates for all prisoners at 7 cents per minute — but advocates pushed to make all calls free. The California Division of Juvenile Justice says the adolescents in its custody are now receiving “increased free phone calls” and can request video chats, but families down in Louisiana are not so fortunate. In-person visits in Louisiana’s youth jails and prisons are also suspended due to COVID outbreaks in early January, and children can only make phone calls if their parents put money into their commissary accounts, according to the Monroe News-Star in southern Louisiana.

Toni Giarrusso has two sons incarcerated in separate Louisiana facilities and estimates that she has spent about $6,000 to regularly speak with them on the phone. Other parents pay out of pocket for expensive video calls, a privilege that can be revoked as a punishment. Giarrusso said going without visitation is hard on her and her sons, and one of them has contemplated suicide.

“Connor, because they wouldn’t give him visitation, tried to kill himself or was talking about killing himself, which is horrible,” Giarrusso told the News-Star.

Data on COVID in prisons is increasingly scarce, and policies and conditions in youth lockups vary widely from state to state and between individual facilities. For example, some youth prisons and pre-trial “detention halls” (jails) allow free phone calls and video visits, while others gouge families under contracts with profit-hungry private telecom companies that can charge between 11 and 91 cents per minute, according to federal data from Hannah Benton Eidsath, a directing attorney at the National Center for Youth and Law.

These rates do not include additional fees levied by individual facilities, but Eidsath said parents consistently say they are determined to call their kids no matter the cost, even if that means missing rent payments or forgoing medical bills.

The bottom line is this is absolutely a hidden, additional charge burdening families while everyone in our society should instead be doing everything they can to help these kids stay connected with their families and their communities, and to support them in leaving these facilities as soon as possible,” Eidsath said in an interview.

We do know that youth incarceration rates dropped by about 24 percent during the nationwide lockdowns of 2020, accelerating a trend that started in 1995, when the rate of youth confinement was 70 percent higher than in 2019. The use of pre-trial juvenile detention facilities increased as lockdowns lifted in 2021 and reached a 19-month high in October, but that’s still 22 percent lower than before the pandemic began, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

While a handful of states moved to release already confined and incarcerated youth to make room for social distancing early on in the pandemic, Ryan said the decrease in incarceration rates were largely the result of decisions by courts and policy makers to refrain from incarcerating additional kids and adopt alternatives instead.

“Less kids were being locked up, but kids who were already locked up were not being released,” Ryan told Truthout. “Even prior to the pandemic, we knew that youth prisons are harmful to kids. The environment is toxic, the likelihood that a young person is going to end up in adult criminal legal system is seriously increased, there’s abusive conditions and guards that are never held accountable, and you also have pretty limited education.”

There are massive racial disparities in youth incarceration — Black youth in California are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, for example — and Ryan said the youth who remain incarcerated are often Black and Brown.

“So, we’re not sending as many white kids to these places, and that’s not because white kids commit less crimes than Black and Brown kids do … they are just treated differently by the juvenile justice system,” Ryan said.

The costs of staying connected with children in youth prisons only add to the various fines and fees associated with incarceration and the criminal legal system, which disproportionately fall on lower-income families, advocates say. Almost every state allows juvenile courts to charge families at least one type of fine or fee, and last year a coalition for groups launched a national campaign to abolish the legal debts for incarcerated youth and their families.

Ryan said it’s not just legal debts that need to be abolished — youth prisons themselves should be abolished as well. Nationwide, there are 80 youth prisons that are more than 100 years old and built to mirror the structure of prisons for adults, in keeping with a model developed in the 19th century. Youth are also confined in local pre-trial detention centers and various state facilities that may not be called jails or prisons but operate in much the same way, often subjecting vulnerable youth to solitary confinement and physical abuse and fueling a silent mental health crisis.

Ryan told Truthout that the decrease in youth incarceration that occurred during the first year of the pandemic reveals how arbitrary and unnecessary the decisions to incarcerate young people in the first place have been. Alternatives to incarceration are already working, Ryan argued, adding that advocates across the country are now pushing to close down expensive youth prisons and invest in community-based education and behavioral services.

“You have a whole variety of factors that are compounded during this pandemic that is making youth incarceration worse, and on top of that, the indifference of public officials to this has been eye-opening,” Ryan said. “It requires a fraction of spending to serve kids in the community, and they would be better off, so why aren’t we doing that? Where is the political will to make that change?”

Clarification: This article originally reported that “incarceration rates” reached a 19-month high in October 2021. It was the use of pre-trial juvenile detention facilities (or youth jails, group homes, camps etc) to incarcerate youth that reached a 19-month high, not the use of prisons to incarcerate youth who have been convicted of a crime in court.