Arjanae Avula talks to her younger brother twice a week. Phone calls last about three minutes before they’re cut off. During their last conversation, she said, he was crying.
“When am I going to get out of here? ... Do you know anything? Can you talk to anybody?” Avula recalled him asking.
Her 18-year-old brother is at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center, a coronavirus hot spot near Richmond, Virginia, where at least 25 youths and 10 employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
Youths at Bon Air have been locked in cells no bigger than a bathroom for 23 hours a day, families and attorneys said. They’re allowed one hour to either shower, brush their teeth or call home. Classes have been canceled, and they have little to no human interactions.
Avula, 19, is not just worried about the virus; she also fears for her brother’s mental health. She said he has attention deficit disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s prone to outbursts, Avula said, and the isolation is making them worse.
“The best thing for people to do is to remain safe and quarantined with their family rather than being locked up in a cage,” she said. “These are not 40-year-old men. ... This is not a state max prison.”
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads at Bon Air and other juvenile facilities across the country, attorneys and advocates are scrambling to get young detainees released, especially those serving time for nonviolent offenses and probation violations or who have underlying health conditions. But the process isn't easy.
Because the juvenile system is dependent on judges’ discretion, releasing someone is largely based on which judges are presiding in what jurisdiction – instead of the severity of offenses, attorneys and advocates say. The result is a patchwork of decisions, a slow slog to bring cases in front of judges at a time when courts across the country are shut down.
“It’s justice by geography. Depending on where you live, you may have greater or lesser access to the courts, or greater or lesser opportunity to have your case reviewed,” said Marsha Levick, chief legal officer of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
Across the country, 116 youths at juvenile facilities have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the Sentencing Project, which has been tracking cases nationwide. In Louisiana, 28 juveniles have tested positive at facilities across the state.
Bon Air, an all-male facility for teens and young men ages 14 to 20, has among the highest number of cases for a single facility.
“These numbers are untenable,” Levick said. “The public health crisis is something that has sent all of us home hunkered down, and yet here we are, allowing children and other incarcerated individuals living in group-living situations where the risk of spreading the contagion is just extreme.”
Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice said the majority of the nearly two dozen who tested positive at Bon Air did not show symptoms and are no longer in medical isolation. Four had minor cold and flu-like symptoms. Two of the 10 staffers who tested positive have since returned to work, according to the department.
“As an agency that provides care for children, our first priority has been keeping residents and staff safe and healthy,” the director, Valerie Boykin, said in a statement.
‘He’s sad, he’s isolated, he’s anxious’
But families remain uneasy.
Avula said her brother has not been tested for coronavirus and doesn’t have any symptoms. That worries her, she said, because many people with the virus don't show symptoms early on – or at all. Plus, her brother has asthma.
Other family members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid drawing attention to their relatives’ cases, said they have received little information from officials about how their loved ones are doing.
One woman said after her relative tested positive, no one at the facility told her or anyone in the family about it. She said the family found out after the boy told his grandmother on the phone that he had tested positive.
“I was upset. The father was upset,” she said. “Before I got to speak to him or to the doctor, I didn’t know if he had more symptoms or build up in his lungs. I didn’t know anything.”
One mother said her son tested negative, but there have been many sleepless nights. Juveniles like her son have been separated from their support system, she said.
“I think that just makes them sad. It makes my son sad. He’s sad, he’s isolated, he’s anxious,” she said. “These boys have had some kind of trauma in their life. ... When my child says to me, ‘Mom, I don’t know how to stay well anymore,’ it breaks your heart because that should never happen to any child. We’re failing, and it is extremely upsetting to me as a parent.”
In a letter sent to Bon Air earlier this week, the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia said juveniles they represent learned they have COVID-19 when they were told they’ll be moved to the medical unit. There were no explanations about the implications of the virus, or what a positive test means, leaving juveniles in fear and confusion, the letter said.
Attorneys for the center also said their clients have not received counseling services for weeks. Juveniles were given washable masks, but they’re often unable to wash them. They said one client who has tested positive has not been examined by a doctor. Another client who felt ill said his complaints about symptoms were overlooked, the letter said.
“The kids developmentally are in this sort of malleable state. They’re growing their identity, rehabilitating,” said Amy Walters, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “If you’re in this psychologically traumatic experience where your health is compromised, that’s going to have ramification for the rest of their lives.”
A spokesman for the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice said it is preparing to respond to the center's letter, and the agency hopes to continue a "constructive dialogue."
Officials said in a statement last week that those with coronavirus are receiving adequate medical care at Bon Air, and families were notified when their relatives tested positive.
Officials also said they've ramped up testing. Temperatures are taken twice daily, and those with a reading of 100.3 degrees or higher are tested for coronavirus. Youths and employees have also been given masks.
Jennifer Jones, whose 17-year-old is at Swanson Center for Youth in Columbia, Louisiana, said her son is scared, and he worries about who will have the virus next. Twelve have tested positive at the center, nearly half of all cases at juvenile facilities in the state.
"It’s like all around him but never got to him yet," Jones said. "I just try to tell him to just keep his head up, continue to wash and try to stay safe."
She said her son has three months left for probation violation.
‘No sense of urgency’
Across the country, adult jails and prisons have rushed to release hundreds of inmates to avoid massive outbreaks behind bars. But the juvenile system has been slow to respond, attorneys and advocates say. Judges in some jurisdictions have rejected requests for such large-scale releases for juveniles.
In Pennsylvania, the state supreme court rejected a petition to release children who have health problems or are being held for nonviolent offenses or probation violations. Judges acknowledged that the potential for outbreaks at facilities is “undeniable,” but they said a blanket release “fails to take into account the individual circumstances of each juvenile, including any danger to them or to others.” The court, instead, directed county judges to review juvenile cases.
The Maryland Court of Appeals rejected a similar petition and directed lower court judges to identify juveniles who can be released.
In Virginia, where Bon Air is located, judges decide whether to release juveniles who are facing more serious offenses. For others, the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, which oversees Bon Air, has that authority. The department said it has reduced the correctional center’s population by 10% since mid-March.
Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center, said because the juvenile system has been so accustomed to thinking about kids through a very specific lens, it is unable to respond swiftly during a pandemic. Trying to get courts to “pivot on a dime” has been impossible, she said.
“The good story about the juvenile justice system is that it’s designed to be very individualized. You look at every kid individually,” Levick said. “The bad news is it’s individualized. ... A framework that works when the world is not facing a pandemic does not work when there’s a pandemic.”
Renee Slajda, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, said she doesn't think the individualized system makes releasing juveniles harder.
"Judges know these kids. They should be regularly checking on them on their progress and understand the severity of this moment," she said.
Still, in some jurisdictions where attorneys have asked judges to review their clients' individual cases, there has been little success.
The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, the public defender agency for juveniles in New Orleans, has filed motions asking judges to reconsider their clients’ sentences. But the juvenile court has yet to schedule a hearing, Slajda said.
“There are a lot of good candidates (for release). We just can’t get the state or the judges to review,” Slajda said. “There’s no sense of urgency. ... We’re not against individualized decision-making. We’re just asking that no matter what the mechanisms are for sending kids home, that actions are taken quickly.”
In Houston, public defenders filed writs to challenge their clients’ detention, but those have been rejected, said Steven Halpert, juvenile division chief of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office. One court rejected their petition without a hearing, he said.
“Judges are really hesitant to release kids with more serious charges,” Halpert said. “But they didn’t sign up to be in a facility where coronavirus can spread quickly.”
In Los Angeles, a judge denied a juvenile’s petition even though the teen’s probation officer asked for an early release.
In some cases, children don’t have homes to go to.
Marissa Boyce, an assistant public defender for the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, said she has one such client, a 15-year-old.
“We have had multiple detention hearings to try to get him placed. His family can’t take him. He doesn’t have any other family,” Boyce said.
The bottom line, Boyce said, is that judges have to consider two things when deciding whether juveniles should be released: danger to the community and likelihood of becoming a flight risk.
But, she added, “I’m hard-pressed to think of a reason why a child should be locked up during a pandemic.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic spreads and families are left in fear.
Avula said she has many questions.
She wonders how coronavirus started inside Bon Air in the first place. She wonders why the outbreak isn’t enough reason to release her brother, who she said is at the end of his sentence.
“My brother has done everything he’s supposed to complete,” she said, “and he should be out right now.”