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A 20-year-old Northern California man stepped into freedom late last month, after serving his time in one of the state’s three youth prisons – human warehouses now struggling to beat back the coronavirus before it spreads faster through a population of 775 young people who committed crimes as juveniles.

Guards Without Masks

Heading home from the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton was as abrupt and haphazard as the state’s clunky response to containing the voracious virus in prisons statewide. During his stay at the prison known as Chad, the young man said, his peers were provided masks and antiseptic cleaning supplies. But some of those guarding them brushed off wearing protective gear.

“‘A lot of this stuff is fake,’” he recalled one correctional officer telling him.

As the virus spreads, one young man’s scary exit from California’s juvenile prisons.

That was shortly before infections of COVID-19 grew from a few cases just weeks ago, to more than 60 today.

At the onset of the pandemic earlier this year, California’s state juvenile justice system appeared to have staved off the pandemic. That changed in June, when a handful of young adults in the state’s Central Valley prisons tested positive. They were among the first known cases in the system serving a population aged 12 to 25, considered the counties’ most serious juvenile offenders.

Since then, coronavirus cases in the three youth prisons in Stockton and Camarillo have grown 20-fold. As of Monday, officials, said, 64 youth and 15 staff have tested positive in facilities run by the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice, a branch of the larger corrections department.

“This outbreak is deeply concerning. Every precaution should be taken to contain the virus and protect youth as well as staff,” state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D) stated in an email. Jackson’s district includes the Ventura youth prison, where last week 39 young people and eight staff members tested positive. “We need to take this virus seriously and do everything we can to protect the youth under our care.”

The fenced recreation yard at N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton. Photo courtesy of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

The fenced recreation yard at N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton. Photo courtesy of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

State officials say most of the infected youth are asymptomatic, although some have exhibited “mild” symptoms, including fever and loss of smell. Those with symptoms have been moved to a medical housing unit. Young people testing positive who are asymptomatic are isolated or are quarantined with their units and checked twice a day for fevers and oxygen levels.

No youth have died or been hospitalized, according to the state, and juvenile facilities are described as following COVID-19 protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All agency staff are tested every two weeks, Division of Juvenile Justice officials said, and incoming staff also face a questionnaire about their symptoms and temperature checks.

Personal protective gear has been required under agency policy, although some youth detained at state facilities have told advocates about the sporadic use of masks by some correctional staff.

The day before he was released from Chad in July, the 20-year-old from Northern California was given a coronavirus test. But he said he never learned the results.

The Imprint is not naming the young man because of his immigration status and his fear of reprisal. But his account was corroborated by two members of the Los Angeles-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a group that works to help incarcerated people reenter society.

In an interview last week, he said he was notified that he was leaving the facility for another lockup shortly before being told to gather his things, put on an orange jumpsuit and climb into a van. Then he was driven to a Northern California county jail, where he would spend three days, mostly quarantined, with no ability to shower.

He described this experience as yet another terrifying twist of life behind bars during a pandemic. But there was one consolation: In the men’s county jail the staff all wore masks and gloves, in contrast with the youth prison he had just left, he said.

Still, as he awaited word for the terms of his release to be finalized, his anxiety grew.

“When I get really stressed, I can feel a vein in the back of my ear start throbbing,” he said. His uncertain immigration status added to the fears of contagion. “The first night I was at county, I felt it pop, and I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night.”

According to the young man’s account, staff at the jail tested him for the coronavirus two more times over four days. But although juvenile justice officials say they provide “documentation of status” upon discharge, he said he has received no results from the three tests he took while in state and local custody.

Finally, the day came for the virtual juvenile delinquency court hearing that he needed before being released. The young man sat alone before the screen in shackles that looped around his waist. His wrists and ankles were bound by cuffs and chains.

Two hours later, he stepped outside the jail into a future more uncertain than ever. It felt surreal, he said, like watching “a strange cartoon” from afar.

“We think this is happening with other youth as well,” said Miguel Garcia, the Sacramento-based policy coordinator for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition,. The group also receives state funding to lead programming and mentorship in several Southern California adult and youth prisons. Its focus is providing community and transition services to those exiting lockups.

 Life coach Efrain Padilla. Photo courtesy of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition

Life coach Efrain Padilla. Photo courtesy of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition

Garcia, who was released from a California youth prison in 2014, said moving from one detention facility to another in the midst of the global pandemic is a frightening prospect, both for individuals and the public.

“You don’t know who you’re going to come into contact with at a county jail,” he said. “Some people are fresh off the street while others have been there for some time, and they could all have the virus.”

Fits and starts have preceded the increased numbers of infections in California’s youth prisons.

In late March, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued an executive order barring any new admissions or transfers into the state’s juvenile and adult prison systems run by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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But that order expired on May 26. And within weeks, the number of infected inmates spiraled out of control, even though roughly 15,700 people have been granted early release from the adult prison system to stem the infection rates.

There are still 99,929 people in California’s adult prisons – and in institutions like San Quentin State Prison, the death toll is mounting. As of Tuesday, state figures show, 50 prisoners have died from illnesses related to COVID-19, and almost 8,400 have been infected. A total of 1,870 state prison employees also caught the virus, 872 of whom have returned to work.

On June 29, state officials reinstated the admissions ban for those in the adult prison system that had timed out a month prior –once again barring transfers from county jails to state prisons.

But until last Tuesday, the state made no similar adjustments to the youth prison system, where juvenile offenders had continued to arrive as new admissions.

Although there had been little contagion through much of June, as more youth entered from countydetention centers infections spread. All told, 80 youth arrived in groups of 10 to two of the three prisons. Some new transfers brought infection with them, including at least two youth who arrived from juvenile halls. Other infections have been linked to staff members bringing the virus in from their communities.

Now, about 8% of the youth at Division of Juvenile Justice facilities have been infected, a rate roughly comparable to the adult prison system population.

To contain further spread, beginning on July 28, the Division of Juvenile Justice once again temporarily halted new admissions to the Ventura youth prison, and two days later, they suspended intake from all youth prisons.

State officials said when new arrivals to youth prisons were allowed, they were tested twice for COVID-19 before being allowed to join the population, and they have been doing their best to keep young people safe.

“Our highest priority is the health and wellness of our youth and staff, and this pause, in cooperation with county courts and probation, will help us accomplish that goal,” said Heather Bowlds, acting director of the Division of Juvenile Justice, in a statement emailed to The Imprint.

But Maureen Washburn, a policy analyst with the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice called the Division of Juvenile Justice’s response long overdue, and said it’s still “too little, too late.”

Hitting pause on new intakes, “doesn’t address the dangerous conditions in the facilities right now,” Washburn said. “This is an unprecedented crisis — DJJ and the state need to exercise their authority to move youth out of harm’s way.”

She said the agency should take a more aggressive approach to releasing the medically vulnerable, youth within six months of release, and those who don’t pose a public safety risk.

Washburn and other advocates said the spread of the virus should come as no surprise. Youth in state custody are confined in close quarters in aging prisons built on the punishing architecture of eras long past. In some facilities, they sleep in dorms with cots and bunk beds in close proximity. Bathrooms are shared and youth cluster in day rooms playing cards and watching TV.

That has made the still-raging pandemic “a worst-case scenario” inside prison walls, Washburn said. “All of the best practices we’re using in the community to control the spread of the virus aren’t possible in youth prisons.”

In an April report, Washburn’s research and advocacy center detailed some of the hazards of life in California’s youth prisons, describing unsanitary conditions that make them “ripe for virus transmission.”

The report also said the imprisoned youth are three times more likely to be referred for outside medical treatment than those in local juvenile facilities, and they often experience “long wait times, misdiagnosis, and frequent dismissal of serious symptoms.”

After serving their time, youth are normally transferred to a jail in their home county where they await juvenile court hearings to determine the terms of their release. Newsom has since directed counties, whenever possible, to handle the hearings remotely – allowing youth to head home directly from the prisons rather than mixing populations in step-down facilities.

The dangers of those transfers are ever-present: Last week, 16 incarcerated people at the Milpitas jail in Santa Clara County tested positive for the coronavirus. And since last month, about one-quarter of all inmates at jails in Monterey County are infected.

For the 20-year-old man recently released from the Stockton youth prison, the path home took him to yet another lockup.

He had completed his prison term for a violent offense committed when he was a teenager. Serving time during the pandemic at Chad, he received educational packets. But there were no vocational programs or other activities available, he said. So he spent most of his last few months just trying to stay away from fights and other trouble.

Efrain Padilla, a life coach who works on the Anti-Recidivism Coalition’s Hope and Redemption Team, has been in touch with the young man for several months. Disconnected from family, he didn’t know what he would do after release.

Over weekly phone calls, Padilla promised to help him make the transition. And when the day came, he watched his mentee step outside the jail in flip-flops and a jumpsuit, with no money and no idea where he would be able to live, he said.

Padilla made the best of the unexpected situation, pulling out a pair of Jordan Shorts from the trunk of his car for the young man to change into. They headed off from the jail to a nearby Walmart for more essentials, and then bought burritos.

Weeks later, the young man is searching for some stability amid the decimation of the state’s economy. Regular meetings with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition’s community of formerly incarcerated people has given him some hope.

With jobs scarce and little money to his name, he is living in a youth shelter, trying to string together any work he can, including occasional shifts with a moving company. Padilla has continued to offer him guidance, and helped him enroll at the local city college, where he hopes to pursue a degree in nutrition or business – even though he has yet to own a computer.

[dc]“I[/dc] just don’t want to be someone you see on the side of the street, living in a tent,” he said. “I have no other choice right now — I’m going to have to succeed.”


Jeremy Loudenback
The Imprint

This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.