Under pressure from a lawsuit and after a large protest at a prison in Monroe, Washington state is preparing to release hundreds of adults who are locked up as a way to reduce the population behind bars and prevent coronavirus infections.
Advocacy groups are pushing for the state to also release incarcerated youth.
Organizations including TeamChild, ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services sent a letter dated March 23 to Ross Hunter, secretary of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, which oversees juvenile rehabilitation.
In the letter, they said incarcerated people living in close quarters are particularly vulnerable to getting infected and the best protection for youth is to release them.
Chen-Chen Jiang is a Skadden Fellowship attorney with TeamChild. She said the ultimate aim is to release all young people from incarceration, but the department should start by releasing certain youth.
“Particularly for groups that are extra vulnerable because of underlying health problems or because they are of minimal risk to the community because they have less than six months of their sentence remaining,” Jiang said.
Jiang said DCYF has not yet responded to their letter.
Debra Johnson, a spokesperson for the department, said facility administrators are protecting youth in a number of ways. For example, the more than 300 young people in secure facilities no longer eat in a central dining area and do not double bunk. And she said the population will naturally decline because intakes have slowed and some people will be released after serving out their time.
The department last month reported one confirmed case of COVID-19 in a staff member at Green Hill School, a secure facility in Chehalis.
A large disturbance erupted on April 8 at Monroe Correctional Complex. It was likely triggered by concerns among inmates that they’re at risk for getting the sometimes deadly virus. Eleven incarcerated people and six staff members at Monroe had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 17.
Kendrick Washington, youth policy counsel for ACLU of Washington, said juveniles are less likely to know how to effectively protest conditions.
“They don’t understand how to advocate for their rights and to stand up and demonstrate in a way that won’t bring harm to them but will also still manage to bring about the change in the way that the individuals at the Monroe facility were able to do,” Washington said. “So even from a power dynamic standpoint, these kids are at a disadvantage.”
Washington said some counties, including King County, have taken significant steps to reduce their populations in juvenile facilities. According to the King County Adult and Juvenile Detention Department, the number of youth residents has decreased from 43 on March 13 to 26 on April 17.