'10 To A Room, A Few Feet Apart': Advocates Say LA County's Incarcerated Youth Are At High Risk

FILE PHOTO: A probation officer walks through a dormitory at Camp Afflerbaugh in 2013. (Grant Slater / KPCC)

Attorneys and advocates for youth offenders say children and young people held at juvenile facilities across L.A. County lack basic protections from the novel coronavirus, despite living under a national emergency and multiple orders from authorities to restrict physical contact with others.

Multiple people who spoke to LAist raised deep concerns about what's currently going on in these youth facilities, which hold about 700 kids and young adults ages 12 to 23. Even as most of the nation is under orders to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic by staying away from other people, they're hearing about troubling conditions.

"We are getting repeated, consistent reports of youth who are held in custody, not having any guidance or guidelines on social distancing," said Jerod Gunsberg, a private attorney who represents juvenile offenders as part of a partnership between L.A. County and the L.A. County Bar Association.

"They're eating communally, they're showering communally," Gunsberg told us. "There's no consistent access to soap and water or hand sanitizer."

Yet, at the same time, Gunsberg said, some staffers are taking precautions.

"Strangely, we're now getting reports that in the [youth detention] camps, the probation department is standing six feet away from the kids, but the kids are all still clumped together."

A Los Angeles County public defender, who has been communicating with dozens of incarcerated youth by phone, echoed similar concerns in an email sent this week to a nonprofit child advocacy organization.

Patricia Soung, senior staff attorney and director of policy at the Children's Defense Fund - California, received the email. Without disclosing the public defender's identity, she read us a portion of the message:

"There is no social distancing going on. Meals are shared communally. Kids are sleeping 10 to a room, a few feet apart. They are getting rec and playing basketball and soccer and they are watching movies en masse. No access to hand sanitizer or wipes. Areas cleaned once a day. Staff not wearing gloves or mask."

What's more, Soung read, no one sanitized the phones the kids were using to talk to the public defender. The lawyer wrote to Soung that the phone was being passed "from young person to staff to the next young person and not wiping them down all day."

L.A. County's Department of Health Services, which oversees medical care at juvenile facilities, did not respond to our request for comment.

HIGH RISK FOR JAILS AND PRISONS

These reports come as a growing number of law enforcement officers and incarcerated people are testing positive for the virus.

Youth advocates say the information is especially disconcerting in light of reports this week that 21 children or young adults housed at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar are now in quarantine after possible exposure to an employee who has tested positive for the virus.

"The risk of COVID-19 spreading in correctional settings is very high," said Dr. Elizabeth Barnert, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA who is a pediatrician at the Sylmar facility.

In Riverside County, authorities are tying the death of a deputy this week from COVID-19 complications to an inmate he helped transfer to a medical facility for examination. The sheriff's department there has reported at least 24 other positive cases among staff alone, which includes the death of a second deputy.

While older adults are most at risk of complications from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, people of all ages with underlying health conditions are more likely to become seriously ill or die from it, health experts warn.

And that's potentially problematic for kids in the juvenile justice system, many of whom come from poor backgrounds, making them more likely to have chronic illnesses such as asthma and diabetes.

"Juvenile detention centers are somewhat lower-risk than adult facilities," Barnert said. "But they're still extremely high-risk compared to the general community."

CALLS FOR DECARCERATION

FILE PHOTO: A juvenile detention officer oversees a full bunk room at Camp Afflerbaugh in 2013. (Grant Slater / KPCC)

As the novel coronavirus spreads locally and globally, L.A. County and a growing number of other jurisdictions nationwide are releasing adult inmates to prevent the pandemic from infiltrating jails and prisons.

In L.A. County, those inmates are being released in groups, based on a number of factors, including the severity of their offenses and the potential risk they pose to the public, if released.

In the adult population, the list of inmates eligible for release is determined by interested parties, including prosecutors, defense agencies and the probation department.

Juvenile justice advocates argue the same thing needs to happen with youth currently detained at the county's two juvenile halls and six juvenile camps.

"The most important measure to protect the kids is what I call rapid, smart decarceration," Barnert said. "We need to get as many kids out of the system as quickly as possible."

But multiple sources told LAist that's not happening.

Soung, the Children's Defense Fund attorney, is among the growing chorus calling for immediate decarceration of low-risk children and young adults from county facilities, and from other facilities nationwide.

"As this crisis around COVID-19 unfolds, every day becomes more alarming and urgent to release as many young people as possible from incarcerated settings across the state," Soung said.

But Gunsberg said requests to authorities to implement a system similar to the one being used for adult inmates was "flatly denied." He told LAist:

"In the middle of the most severe public health crisis that any of us have ever seen in our lifetimes, this really isn't time for business as usual, especially now that we have a probation officer who tested positive at the juvenile hall in Sylmar."

Business as usual in the juvenile system, Gunsberg said, calls for individual reviews by judges who are familiar with each detainee's particular case. Critics say that's too slow for a fast-moving pandemic — especially since juvenile courts are now operating on a drastically reduced schedule.

"Some judges have not reported to duty since the beginning of the crisis," Gunsberg said. "Others are only available during certain weeks, or on certain days of the week."

Advocates and lawyers believe it's time for presiding juvenile court judge Victor H. Greenberg to follow the lead of L.A. County's jails.

Gunsberg told LAist that much of the work appears to have already been done for Judge Greenberg.

"We now have reports that the probation department has supposedly generated a list of youth that are eligible for release. And the courts have largely been blocking these releases," he said. "None of us have seen the actual list. The judge has to make the order to release a kid. We're really operating in the dark here."

L.A. County's juvenile probation emailed a statement to LAist:

"The L.A. County Probation Department is working with the courts and legal partners on methods to safely reduce the juvenile population housed at Probation facilities... Those that meet eligibility criteria will be sent to court with a recommendation for release, however, only the court can authorize a release. Unlike the adult system, we are unable to unilaterally release children from custody. Youth are committed to our care by a judicial process and court order and can only be released from custody by the juvenile court."

It went on to list these social distancing measures in Juvenile Facilities:

    • Limiting the congregation of youth to small groups of 6 or less
    • Rearranging scheduled movements to minimize mixing of individuals from different housing areas
    • Having a youth shower individually as opposed to several youth at a time
    • Maximizing outside space during recreation
    • Conducting staggered meals (having youth sit at different tables in small groups)
    • Having an identified space for youth if we have suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19
    • Instructing staff to comply with social distancing when coming on or off duty
    • Having youth sleep head to toe in camps
    • Having DMH and JCHS communicate with youth by phone when appropriate

Cyn Yamashiro, director of the Independent Juvenile Defender Program at the Los Angeles County Bar Association, told LAist that even without such a list, determining who is eligible for release is, in many cases, simple.

"I don't think it's complicated to determine some of the obvious low-hanging fruit," he said. "So kids who are medically compromised or youth who are performing reasonably well while they're in camp. Those would seem to me to be good candidates for early release."

In response to LAist's request for an interview with Judge Greenberg, Mary Eckhardt Hearn, a public information officer with the county's superior court, sent a statement. It reads:

"The Superior Court of Los Angeles County continues to take proactive steps during this public health crisis to protect the health and safety of the public, justice partners, judicial officers and employees while continuing to handle time-sensitive, emergency matters. We recognize the urgency of protecting these youths. We are working with our juvenile justice partners to identify minors for release to slow the spread of COVID-19 in county juvenile facilities. The Court will continue to collaborate with our justice partners to make the best decisions in the interests of public health and safety for all minors, their families and the community."

When youngsters are released from L.A. County juvenile camps or halls, they're put on probation, which is what will happen with any of the youth released because of the pandemic, Gunsberg said.

"There are probation officers assigned to supervise youth who are coming out of the juvenile camps," he said. "So it's not like they're running around on the streets."

MEANTIME, INSIDE FACILITIES

For those who are deemed ineligible for release, Soung and other advocates said measures should be put in place to safeguard their well being during the pandemic.

"We have little assurance that is happening," she said.

Right now, the programs that normally operate in the juvenile justice system, from vocational and arts to regular schooling, are shut down, said Gunsberg. Instead of instruction and rehabilitation, he said, kids are receiving a one-size-fits-all packet of school work that's not graded and that they are told to do on their own.

Gunsberg told us:

"The whole purpose of the juvenile justice system is that it's supposed to be rehabilitative. It's not supposed to be punishment. So you have this situation where these kids are being warehoused with no programming, no rehabilitation."

Complicating matters further, Judge Greenberg on March 20 suspended legally mandated visitation between children and their parents to "ensure the safety and well-being" of detainees, according to his order.

In the meantime, attorneys who represent the youth detainees are reporting that they have less access to their clients than usual, which means less information about the status of their health.

"I still haven't heard as to whether or not my particular clients are in the affected unit, in quarantine," Gunsberg said. "The families haven't heard either."


Stephanie O'Neill is the recipient of a journalism fellowship at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, supported by Direct Relief.

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