The Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), California’s youth prison system, is in the midst of a dangerous new COVID-19 outbreak.
As of November 29, at least 52 youth, possibly more, are officially infected with the virus, with a higher number reportedly testing positive.
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.
In addition, it appears that an administrator working at one of the afflicted facilities hosted a Halloween party at her home for two or three dozen other colleagues just over a month ago, 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.
In an email exchange with Maureen Washburn, researcher and policy expert at CJCJ—The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice—Washburn wrote that this latest surge, though tragic, “was predictable.”
Staff v. outside visitors
When it comes to virus safety, it hasn’t helped that only 64 percent of the corrections officers, counselors, and supervisors working in the state’s three main youth lock-ups are vaccinated against COVID-19. And a significant percentage of those unvaccinated staff who interact face to face with the teenagers and young adults at the DJJ facilities, reportedly do so without wearing a mask, although masks are strictly required.
So, were DJJ staff, and their supervisors, the ones responsible for bringing in the infection? Or did the visits of family and other loved ones introduce the new outbreak?
Although there’s no definitive way to determine the source, a look at some basic factors suggests that, even apart from the Halloween party, transmission from staff may be the most likely culprit.
Here’s the deal.
Staff members in the state’s youth prisons are subject to the same COVID-related precautionary requirements as those working in the adult prisons.
Given the CDCR’s ghastly record for COVID safety, (which WLA reported repeatedly last year), this isn’t really very cheering.
Earlier this year, the adult corrections staff were subject to the September 27, 2021, ruling of the Honorable Jon S. Tigar, District Judge for the Northern District of California.
Judge Tigar, for those not following such issues, is the jurist overseeing the long standing and still ongoing class action lawsuit, Plata v. Newsom. So, after the Plata lawyers filed a new complaint earlier this year pertaining to COVID safety inside the prisons, Judge Tiger issued his Sept 2021 ruling,”Order Re: Mandatory Vaccinations,” which said that access to staff members working in the CDCR facilities must be “limited to those workers who establish proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or have an approved religious or medical exemption to vaccination.”
But there are two big problems.
The first problem is the fact that Judge Tigar’s vaccination mandate didn’t kick in until January 12, 2022.
Now, even that date has become inoperative after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on November 26, 2021, postponing the Jan. 12 deadline to get thousands of prison workers vaccinated until at least March of 2022,
In short, family members and loved ones hoping to visit DJJ youth must “provide proof of a negative test taken no longer than 72 hours prior to to the visit.”
Those visitors who are fully vaccinated do not have to provide test results, as long as they bring copy of their vaccination card “indicating they are two weeks past the final injection of their vaccination series.”
When it comes to unvaccinated visitors, the test required is a “PCR COVID-19 test.” An over-the-counter test from a retail pharmacy like those tests you can get from RiteAid or CVS, will not be accepted.
The visitor precautions don’t stop there.
During the entirety of the visit, kids and loved ones must remain six feet apart, and must be masked at all times—specifically using a mask provided by the DJJ facility. And both the visitor’s nose and mouth must be fully covered by the mask..
(How well and consistently these mandates are enforced is a discussion for another day.)
In a past COVID outbreak at DJJ, the likely entry point for the virus was the transfer of youth to the DJJ facilities from California’s various counties. But now there are no more transfers from the counties. In an effort to wind down the DJJ system toward its closure, as of July 1, 2021, the state shut off the pipeline of youth admission from the counties.
The above does not constitute proof, of course, but it strongly suggests staff members are the most likely source of the new and dangerous outbreak, especially given the actions and behavior that our various sources report..
The risks to the health of the youth are made worse by the condition of the facilities themselves, which, as WLA noted in our last story about DJJ, feature aging prison-like cells, and large open dormitories, which can too easily turn into petri dishes.
(See the photo above, courtesy of CJCJ.)
A call to action.
So what to do?
Yesterday, Wednesday, December 1, CJCJ along with a list of 60 co-signatories sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom calling for change.
The letter—which you can read here—describes the new outbreak as a “call to action, then proceeds to describe in detail the “continued failures” of DJJ that affect the health and safety of youth in residence.
Given DJJ’s antiquated design and communal living units, the letter tells the governor, it is impossible for youth to maintain safe physical distances.
In recognition of “the dangers of congregate settings,” the letter notes, “California has released thousands of adults from CDCR institutions under your leadership.”
Yet DJJ’s youth were excluded from these opportunities,”leaving hundreds of young people in harm’s way.”
With this and the “mental health and physical well-being” of the remaining DJJ youth in mind, the multi-signatory letter urges Newsom reduce the DJJ’s remaining population with such strategies as an offer early release to youth “who are within six months of their parole date and/or youth who are medically vulnerable,” a strategy that was successfully used for adults incarcerated in the state’s prisons.
The letter to Newsom also points to the fact that the DJJ COVID-19 data should be made public by facility, “including vaccination statistics for youth and staff, testing numbers, and a timeline of positive and negative results dating to March 2020.”
(Such data is made public for the adult prisons, but not for the youth prisons, so worried parents and friends of DJJ youth are left in the dark.)
The letter also asks the governor to provide all youth and staff with adequate PPE and strictly enforce staff mask-wearing requirements.
Staff, the letter states, should have to “meet the same threshold for entering the facilities as outside visitors (full vaccination or a negative COVID test within the past 72 hours).”
Frankly, it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.
“The state is failing in its duty to keep youth safe,” CJCJ’s Washburn told us. “We’ve known for years that DJJ is fundamentally dangerous, but today’s youth are at unprecedented risk. They’re getting sick, losing access to needed programming, and spending long hours isolated in cells, all because DJJ has failed to follow basic safety precautions and has refused to reduce its dense population.”
Unfortunately, this is just a part of the story about the disastrous issue of DJJ and COVID.