PW special report, Part Three: COVID-19 pandemic poses dire threat to NC prisons and jails

PW special report, Part Three: COVID-19 pandemic poses dire threat to NC prisons and jails

(Photo by Melissa Boughton)

The challenge of keeping kids and staff safe in juvenile detention facilities

[Editor’s note: This is the third of what has now evolved into a four-part series examining the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to jails, prisons and other detention facilities. The reports highlight stories about incarcerated individuals, staff members who are charged with caring for them and the Cooper administration’s response to calls for change before a potential outbreak.]

The needs of children in detention centers are almost identical to those of adults in jails and prisons, but their age and development can be an added challenge for officials to consider when responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They are uniquely ill-equipped to deal with this type of emotional and psychological strain that this virus is causing,” said Dawn Blagrove, Executive Director of Emancipate NC, formerly the Carolina Justice Policy Center.

Emancipate NC is, according to its website, a nonprofit organization that empowers and engages communities to solve North Carolina’s criminal justice problems.

Dawn Blagrove, Emancipate NC

Blagrove expressed concern about children in detention being cut off from in-person visits with their families and the possibility the pandemic could exacerbate their mental health issues.

Over 99 percent of kids in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental health diagnosis, and 70 percent have more than one diagnosis, according to a 2016 state report.

“We just want to make sure that we’re highlighting the needs of these children,” Blagrove said. “At the end of the day, they’re all going to be better off and safer sheltering at home than in a communal space. We want these babies to go home; if they can’t go home, we want to make sure these facilities are being cleaned, sanitized on a regular basis and that they have access to what they need to flatten the curve.”

In addition to the kids in juvenile justice centers, some youths under 18 remain in adult jails as the state’s new “Raise the Age” law continues to be implemented. The state raised the age of juveniles who can be housed in adult jails from 16 to 18 in December, but it did not apply to teens who already are in the adult system.

“We need to make sure that these children are being considered, they are being remembered, and we are not treating them like criminals,” Blagrove said.

She asked jail and juvenile detention center officials to keep children abreast about the pandemic, to help them understand why they can’t visit with their loved ones and to waive all fees associated with giving them full access to their families in other ways, like over the phone or via mail.

She also asked for facilities to be equally responsive to families who are cut off from their children. They can take solace in having all the information available, she added.

Finally, she asked for officials to make sure children in detention don’t completely disrupt their educational trajectory in an effort to make sure they are getting some bit of daily normalcy.

Diana Kees, a spokesperson for North Carolina’s Division of Juvenile Justice, reported Monday that since mid-March, the detention center daily population declined by 19.7%, from 208 to 167 juveniles.

“The Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice is committed to doing everything possible to help ensure the health, safety and security of DPS employees, those housed within our system and ultimately the general public,” she stated in an email.

As of last week, no one in the juvenile facilities had tested positive for COVID-19.

Kees said juvenile justice officials are monitoring the situation. They plan to take safety steps as they become necessary to help preempt and reduce opportunities for the virus to spread. They’ve already implemented several operational changes, which she outlined for Policy Watch.

They include suspending visitation and volunteer activities at juvenile facilities; screening juveniles for illness prior to transportation; posting informational literature in all facilities to stress the washing of hands and other preventive measures; using home monitoring when possible to decrease the population in facilities; and increasing the use of telehealth.

Kees said officials have also increased the number of phone calls permitted between juveniles and their families. They are also continuing to hold school in the detention centers and youth development centers, with modifications to protect staff and students.

Belinda Cauthen, a teacher who works in one of the youth development centers, said last week that she was concerned about a lack of cleaning protocols in the facilities. She stopped going to work for fear she would catch the virus there and pass it to her elderly mother, whom she cares for.

She said staff has received emails about cleaning procedures. But she said she would prefer that an outside cleaning crew sanitize the building.

“There are no standard cleaning protocols,” Cauthen said in a phone interview. “When you’ve got youth constantly coming in and out, cleaning has got to be a priority, it should be.”

Kees said juvenile justice is following the CDC guidelines on cleaning protocols.

“Though our staff are concerned for themselves, their families and the juveniles they serve, most of them are showing up to work, exhibiting the same great passion and dedication as usual,” said William Lassiter, deputy secretary for Juvenile Justice. “Our employees are amazing people.”

Eric Zogry, North Carolina Office of the Juvenile Defender

Eric Zogry, of the North Carolina Office of the Juvenile Defender, said most juvenile court hearings have been postponed.

He said when the pandemic started taking hold in North Carolina, advocates were focused on early release, but the discussion has shifted to reducing the number of kids coming into the system. With schools closed, he said he was interested to see how that would affect the numbers, because so many referrals come from the schools.

“An irony of this is that [the population] may be automatically reduced just because school’s not in session,” he said.

The National Juvenile Defender Center released a letter last week calling on juvenile justice decision makers to stop the influx of new cases, release as many kids as possible, limit in-person contact between youths and probation and parole staff and cancel fines and fees imposed on families during the pandemic.

“Each point of contact between the juvenile legal system and a youth – from interaction with law enforcement through court hearings, incarceration, and supervision – represents an opportunity to interrupt the exponential growth of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter states. “The juvenile legal system must intentionally reduce its impact on youth at every touchpoint until the pandemic has been resolved.”

Ultimately, Blagrove said the most important thing right now is for the community to support the kids in detention in all possible ways.

“We need to break down this wall we have about people and children that are justice-involved; they are still people; they are not monsters and they are just as deserving of love and care as the children and adults who are in our own home,” she said.