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Conditions In The Juvenile Facilities Worsen During The Coronavirus Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When children break the law in the U.S., built into the system is the hope that they can change. So most kids are sent to juvenile detention centers with therapy, classes and programs to prevent them from becoming adults who break the law. But like nearly everything in American life, the coronavirus pandemic has drastically shifted how these 44,000 kids now spend their days. Eli Hager reported on this for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on criminal justice. Welcome.

ELI HAGER: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Since the virus has been ripping through the country, your story says that many of these kids are spending - what? - 23 hours a day in isolation. Is that correct?

HAGER: Right. According to lawsuits in five states, as well as interviews with corrections officers and staff in these facilities, as well as advocates and family members of kids, in some of the states where the virus has hit juvenile facilities the hardest, they are using isolation as a form of makeshift social distancing. So that means kids staying in their rooms for, yes, as you say, up to 23 hours a day, not being allowed to spend any time together, to make relationships, to learn from each other - the kinds of things that were happening before.

CHANG: So are these kids - generally, when they're being isolated, are they generally sitting in their own rooms at these detention facilities or are they placed in, like, solitary confinement?

HAGER: So youth advocates would say that those are one and the same and that there's a lot of euphemistic language used when, essentially, it's solitary confinement conditions, like administrative isolation or room confinement. But, essentially, kids are still just sitting in a room by themselves for 23 hours a day and can get out for one hour just to shower and brush their teeth. So, you know, there's a lot of similarity between the two forms of isolation.

But to answer your question, there are some places, like Louisiana, that have actual isolation cells where they are sending kids who either have been infected or who have participated in fights and escape attempts largely because they're stressed out about the virus, whereas in some other places, it's more like a form of room confinement because not enough staff are showing up. Staff are calling in sick. And so they can't have kids out in the common area. So they're just being held in their rooms, where they usually live.

CHANG: And we should note that, for the most part, some - what? - 70% of these kids, at least, are being incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.

HAGER: Correct. Yes. The youth system is filled with kids who have often committed crimes that are called status offenses, which are crimes that would only be crimes if you're a child, such as drinking underage or violating curfew or running away from home - those kinds of things. And the other main difference is that the purpose of the juvenile system is to rehabilitate, not to punish, whereas there is kind of dispute about what the purpose of the adult system is, whether - it is partly to punish.

CHANG: Given that, given that there is a very real health risk at these juvenile detention centers posed by this virus, what's the balancing act between trying to guard these kids from the psychological effects of isolation but also trying to keep them safe from the virus?

HAGER: Well, it's important to remember that teens especially can be asymptomatic carriers and that also, if they're in confined spaces, the virus can spread quickly and widely to the staff, who can then bring it out into the communities. And then I think a lot of people are aware that teenagers are not as harshly impacted by the coronavirus itself. But it's important to note that teenagers in isolation without mental health treatment for long periods of time, according to psychologists, is a health crisis in itself. And just because teenagers might not be getting the worst version of COVID-19 does not mean that they're not experiencing the worst of this crisis.

CHANG: Eli Hager is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. Thank you very much.

HAGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.