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With more than two million people affected worldwide, the novel coronavirus is exposing social inequities. In a study of COVID-19 and youth, about 90 percent of infected children developed mild to moderate symptoms while only 0.6 percent suffered more severe complications. Yet true to the theme of exacerbated inequality, some populations of youth are at a higher risk than this overall average would suggest.
Compared to other children, children in the juvenile justice system are disproportionately more likely to have compromised immunity, asthma, and other underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk for developing acute coronavirus complications. While there has been much attention paid to different vulnerable populations in our society, juvenile detainees, as usual, are often left out of the conversation.
There are an estimated 43,000 juveniles in detention centers around the country today. Housed in sometimes squalid, overcrowded conditions, this population is particularly vulnerable to the threats posed by the COVID-19. Lawyers are advocating for the immediate release of these children and for changes in detention centers’ operation. To avoid a calamity, these changes need to happen now.
Consider Houston, where Harris County Juvenile Detention Center officials reported over three weeks ago that a teenager in the facility had tested positive for COVID-19. Now inside confined facility walls, the virus will likely spread like wildfire. In some juvenile jails, detainees share communal bathrooms and eating areas, making it even easier for the virus to spread. College dorms pose a similar issue and Harvard students were sent home to avoid the need for similarly close contact. In prisons, typical prevention strategies, such as washing or sanitizing hands, are of little use, as these teenagers may not have access to soap and hand sanitizer is considered contraband. With such dire conditions, juvenile detention centers have already become major hotspots for coronavirus.
Juvenile detainees are also disproportionately affected by mental health issues, and family visits remain a vital source of their social and emotional support. As prisons across the country suspend visits, they lose face to face contact with their parents and family. This will have a detrimental impact on the emotional well-being of these children, two-thirds of whom have preexisting mental health issues. The loss of visitation rights also affects parents, who are distraught about losing contact with their kids. Although some detention centers are providing opportunities for contact over video conference in lieu of in-person visits, not all families have access to this technology.
Many states are also suspending critically important educational and rehabilitative programs in juvenile detention facilities. Children involved in the juvenile justice system often have lower literacy levels and most will never graduate from high school. These children need education to help them reintegrate into society and find a job when they are released. Although some detention centers have provided instructional packets for juvenile detainees, it is unclear how education will continue in the long term. Interruptions in their education will exacerbate gaps between these youth and their peers, decreasing the chances of their successful re-entry and further isolating them from their communities. To address these issues, lawyers and civil rights activists have demanded the immediate release of as many children as possible and a temporary reduction or halt in admissions into detention centers.
Despite the urgent need, the response of state juvenile justice systems has been slow and inconsistent. While some states have implemented basic social distancing measures, efforts to release currently detained children or halt the admissions have been variable. While California issued an order that will temporarily halt new admits into the juvenile justice system, Nebraska refused to issue a blanket policy changing the operations of detention centers. And in New York, detainees are suing detention centers for failing to release juveniles — even as dozens of adults are being released from jails.
With a rapidly changing pandemic, the condition of these children remains uncertain. It is evident, however, that if policymakers do not act swiftly and appropriately, the coronavirus will only compound the physical and emotional vulnerability already facing detained youth. Decision-makers should respond similar to Harvard administrators — too much too soon rather than too little too late.
Fenella McLuskie is a first-year student at Harvard Law School. Sina Sadeghzadeh ’21 is a Neuroscience concentrator in Dunster House. Oliver Q. Sussman ’21 is a Neuroscience concentrator in Pforzheimer House. All three work together as research assistants at the Harvard MGH Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior.
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