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As COVID Spikes in CA’s Adult Prisons, COVID cases now triple in youth prisons.

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

This week we reported on the ongoing COVID spike inside California’s prison facilities, where staff members are still not mandated to be vaccinated.

Since the vaccine rules for the corrections staff members in the state’s youth prison facilities of the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) are governed by the same rules as those in the adult prisons, it was not surprising to learn that, as of Tuesday of this week, 144 kids in DJJ now have active COVID infections, with at least one youth reportedly needing to be hospitalized.

For those unaware, the lack of a vaccine mandate for those working in the petri-dish environments of the state’s adult and the youth prisons is the direct result of legal challenges by the state’s powerful prison guard’s union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The CCPOA’s opposition to a vaccine mandate was further strengthened by the fact that Governor Gavin Newsom sided with the union.

Late last year, when cases inside juvenile facilities in initially began rising, 60 organizations signed a letter addressed to Newsom asking him to release some youth, among other actions, due to what was a growing COVID crisis.

(A year earlier, in December 2020, 13 lawmakers sent a letter to Newsom with many of the same requests.)

He did not comply.

DJJ’s slo-mo closure

California’s youth prison system, as most readers know, is engaged in a slow motion, multi-year phase out, with complete closure scheduled for June 30, 2023, at which time kids who, in the past, would have been sent to DJJ, will remain in California’s various counties.

Prior to June 30, 2023, however, DJJ facilities are expected to retain around 600 or so youth, with that population gradually dropping to less that 550 young people by 2022-2023.

The phase out, while a very important and much needed move by the governor and the state legislature, along with the arrival of a pandemic, has seemed to exacerbate many of the system’s already considerable flaws.

And now we have Omicron.

“DJJ is in the midst of a massive COVID-19 outbreak,” said Maureen Washburn, Senior Policy Manager of the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), in an email to WitnessLA earlier this week.

(Washburn and her colleagues at CJCJ have become the unofficial oversight entity for the DJJ, which is a division under the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and has no independent oversight. Thus she is one of the first places we turn, when we want an informed perspective on this long-troubled system.)

This is not DJJ’s first COVID spike. But it is by far the largest.

The other spike

WitnessLA reported in early December of last year about the then-new COVID-19 outbreak that caused at least 52 youth to become infected with the virus.

The November outbreak was almost certainly staff generated, and was reportedly exacerbated by carelessness and poor oversight by supervisors.

According to WitnessLA’s sources, which include those who work inside the youth prison facilities, although those DJJ staff who are not fully vaccinated are mandated to test for COVID weekly, the requirement for regular testing is not consistently enforced at all.

The inconsistent testing was likely a significant part of the cause of the November outbreak, which appeared to have surfaced after an administrator working at one of the afflicted facilities hosted a Halloween party at her home for two or three dozen other colleagues, after which as many as eight staffers began showing COVID symptoms. 

Then, according to our sources, most or all of those infected reportedly returned to work anyway, not wanting to “burn,” their “holiday credits,” or sick days, because they feared the state would no longer pay their salaries while they stayed home to recover. 

“They think, ‘I’m fine. I’m coming to work.’” said a source familiar with the situation. “They’ve now heard is that once you test positive, you have to burn your own time, and they think, ‘I can’t afford that!’” 

So they don’t get tested, and they come to work, potentially infecting other staff members, more of whom reportedly began developing their own visible symptoms, and likely infected kids in the facilities, who began testing positive in rising numbers.

And then came Omicron, and the numbers tripled.

When it comes to the recent outbreak, according to Washburn, matters have likely not been helped by the staffing shortages that Governor Gavin Newsom described in his budget summary presentation on Monday of this week.

Then there’s the fact, said Washburn, that “youth at DJJ are highly susceptible to COVID-19 given its tightly packed and poorly ventilated living units.”

Whatever the case, the rise suddenly became steeper, which brings us to this week when 144 active infections were reported by the CDCR. Yet, according to Washburn, a total of 238 youth have tested positive since the outbreak that began in the late fall.

That’s more than 1 out of every three youth in the system.

According to Washburn and other sources, an out-of-control COVID outbreak, among kids and those working in the facilities cannot help but make it difficult to adequately staff living units and keep youth safe. According to Washburn, earlier this week “at least 55 staff out of work due to a positive COVID test.”

As of today, that number has risen to 62. And, because the staff stats are self-reported, even that number is likely low.

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