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Riots, escapes and pepper spray: Virus hits juvenile centers

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AP Washington
Nicole Hingle wasn't surprised when the call came. Frustrations had been building inside juvenile detention centers nationwide as the number of coronavirus cases continued to climb.
Now, her 17-year-old son Jace, was on the phone telling her around 40 kids had rioted at his facility in Louisiana the same state where more than a dozen youths escaped during two breakouts at another site this month.
Hingle said her son described whirring helicopters above the Bridge City facility just outside New Orleans. Juveniles kicked down their doors, a SWAT team swarmed in, kids were pepper-sprayed and a staffer was injured during the melee.
It's a real mess, the teen told his mother. Everything is destroyed. Due to coronavirus lockdown measures, it's been more than two months since Hingle has been able to visit her son. She has accused administrators of keeping her in the dark, and said she was growing increasingly upset by the lack of a clear plan to protect or release those held inside. Ten youths have tested positive at Bridge City in recent weeks.
This could be life or death for my child, said Hingle, adding that her son was among a group transferred to the Acadiana Center for Youth after the brawl, where they were pepper-sprayed twice over the weekend by parole officers brought in to help due to short staffing.
I don't want condolences from the state. I don't want condolences from the governor, she said. I do not want sympathy. I want them to do what is right on behalf of our kids because they cannot save themselves nor can we save them without the help of these politicians.
As more and more state and local officials announce the release of thousands of at-risk inmates from the nation's adult jails and prisons, parents along with children rights' groups and criminal justice experts say vulnerable youths should be allowed to serve their time at home.
But they say demands for large-scale releases have been largely ignored. Decisions are often not made at the state level, but instead carried out county by county, with individual judges reviewing juvenile cases one by one.
Such legal hurdles have resulted in some kids with symptoms being thrown into isolation for 23 hours a day, in what amounts to solitary confinement, according to relatives and youth advocates.
They say many have been cut off from programs, counselors and school. Some have not been issued masks, social distancing is nearly impossible and they have been given limited access to phone calls home.
One mother reported that her daughter was so cut off from the outside world with no TV and staff not wearing any protective gear that the girl had no idea a deadly virus was even circulating in America. In some states, authorities have been shuttling kids between facilities, trying to make sure sick and healthy young people are kept apart.
Growing fears and frustrations have led to violence and mayhem not just in Louisiana, but at juvenile centers in other coronavirus hot spots such as New York.
Young people are calling their parents to say they're scared and desperate to escape. Sheriff's deputies responded to a facility in Portland, Oregon, this month after a disturbance broke out, but no injuries were reported.
The department has maintained essential staff at the juvenile detention center in accordance with national standards throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, and is working hard to balance the social and emotional needs of youth in our care during this extraordinary time, the Multnomah County Juvenile Services Division said in a statement.
Vincent Schiraldi, co-director at Columbia University Justice Lab and a former correctional administrator, said he hoped these problems would serve as a warning to other juvenile facilities, especially those that have not yet been hit by the virus.
If this storm is coming in your direction, don't wait until you have 100 mile-an-hour winds to put the boards up on the windows, he said.
Deal with it now. Come up with your COVID plan now. Get everybody out of your facility that can be gotten out, start training your staff, start developing your lines of communication, so that if people start getting sick and staff start calling in sick, then you can manage it as best you can.
As of Monday, 150 juveniles and 283 staff had tested positive for COVID-19 at facilities nationwide, according to an unofficial log being kept by Josh Rovner at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit The Sentencing Project.
He said because testing has been so limited, it's likely the real numbers are much, much higher. New York is one of the few cities that operates two juvenile facilities. At the first sign of illness there, the city agency that oversees the sites decided to put healthy kids at the Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brooklyn, while moving all of the infected residents to the Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx.
Fernando Cabrera, a Bronx council member, said he saw the potential danger of suddenly ripping kids away from familiar staff and routines, especially during a time of crisis.
You transfer all these kids to another borough, they are going to be anxious, he said after dozens of police responded when a fight broke out in Crossroads about two weeks ago.
They are in self-preservation mode. The city's Administration for Children's Services provided few details about the brawl, but said some staff suffered minor injuries, including one who needed offsite medical treatment.

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First Published: Apr 28 2020 | 3:33 PM IST

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