Colorado’s juvenile prisons have avoided COVID-19 outbreaks, but advocates worry about the future

The teen only gets to see his 8-month-old daughter over FaceTime these days. Charged with a violent offense, the 17-year-old has been in Greeley’s Platte Valley Youth Services Center since March as he awaits his next court date. But with the facility locked down to guard against the novel coronavirus, virtual visits are the best he can do.

Schoolwork consists of packets — with little outside help, he alleged. Cloth masks were initially handed out, but they were taken away after staff realized they could be used for self-harm.

At least one youth in the facility has tested positive for COVID-19, he said. (Colorado’s Division of Youth Services would not confirm).

“I feel like some people’s hearts are in the right place,” the teen said about public perception of juveniles in detention. The Denver Post is not identifying him because he is a juvenile and has not been convicted. “But for others, we’re criminals, and it don’t matter what happens to us. We’re here now.”

For teens across Colorado, the global pandemic has disrupted their education, socializing and everyday life. So what happens inside youth detention facilities, where there’s simply nowhere to go?

Colorado’s Division of Youth Services is attempting to walk a fine line between avoiding the dangers of isolating youth, while maintaining safe procedures to prevent outbreaks at 11 facilities around the state. While the virus is much more dangerous in older adults, teens on rare occasions have been gravely impacted, and public health experts say COVID-19 can spread easily in that population without people showing symptoms.

Two youth and seven staff members working at state facilities have contracted the new coronavirus as teen offenders still eat together and some still go to class. Adequate testing has been slow to reach youth facilities, while medical masks only recently became available for teens. Meanwhile, the state and some local school districts are engaged in a standoff over sending teachers into detention center classrooms.

Colorado has been one of the nationwide leaders in reducing its juvenile offender population by nearly 30% since the health crisis began, though juvenile justice advocates argue the population is still too high. And as detention centers around the country have suffered widespread outbreaks, some worry that despite precautionary measures, the Centennial State could be next.

“In juvenile facilities, jails and prisons across the country, we have seen that waiting to take action until you have an outbreak means you have waited too long,” said Elise Logemann, juvenile justice policy counsel for the ACLU of Colorado. “DYS is an incubation hotbed for COVID-19.”

Leadership with the Division of Youth Services, in interviews and statements, said the department is following all the recommended measures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s public health department, has enacted a “robust list of prevention steps” and is coordinating with local health departments on latest guidance.

“We understand and empathize with the family members and other stakeholders that may be concerned about the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in a child/family member who resides in a youth center and how this virus may impact them,” Madlynn Ruble, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Humans Services, said in an email. “Ensuring youth are cared for in a safe and healthy environment continues to be the Division of Youth Services’ greatest concern and our number one priority.”

Reducing population

On April 11, Gov. Jared Polis became one of only a few of governors in the country to issue an executive order on coronavirus prevention at juvenile corrections facilities, urging the Division of Youth Services to release nonviolent offenders who do not pose a threat to the community, as well as reduce the intake of new youth into the facilities.

As a result, the number of detained youth (those who are still pre-trial or waiting to be sentenced) has dropped to 168 from 260 — a 35% decrease since March 1. The committed youth population (those who already have been sentenced) has fallen to 265 from 340 — a 22% decrease during the same time frame, according to state data.

Most youth within 90 days of their parole dates were released, Anders Jacobson, director of the Division of the Youth Services, said in an interview. Other individuals who committed misdemeanor property crimes also were released, and staff is currently looking at letting go some who committed felony property crimes.

“However, we’re not willing to entertain any aggravated or violent juvenile offenders,” Jacobson said.

Arnold Hanuman, deputy director for the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, said his organization was pleased with this “measured approach.”

“I haven’t heard a justification to go beyond what they’ve done,” he said.

Advocates, however, said the 30% reduction is a good start — but it needs to go further.

One of the problems is that some youth who are releasable simply have no safe place to return to, said Chris Henderson, executive director of the Office of the Child’s Representative.

Nationally, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a historic decrease in juvenile detentions.

A survey of juvenile justice agencies in 30 states by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the number of youth in secure detention centers fell by 24% in March — a reduction equal to the national decline for all of 2010 to 2017, the organization found.

Education standoff

For those still in detention or commitment facilities, education continues. But how they’re getting it depends on where they’re living.

Polis’s executive order exempted these facilities from remote learning, so all youth on the commitment side are still taking in-person classes — albeit with restrictions on how many teens can be in a classroom at any given time.

The detention side, however, is more contentious. Of the state’s eight detention facilities, only Adams Youth Services Center in Brighton and Platte Valley Youth Services Center in Greeley have teachers coming into the facilities, the Division of Youth Services said.

Local school districts provide the teachers for juvenile facilities in Colorado and some have decided that they aren’t willing to send their educators into these centers during the pandemic — despite the governor’s order.

A spokesman for Pueblo City Schools, for one, noted that the district’s staff at the Pueblo Youth Services Center is older and at higher risk for infection.

“We took into consideration that staff at that school is an older staff — they do have some health complications — and their health and safety is our priority,” said Dalton Sprouse, spokesman for Pueblo City Schools. “We weren’t willing to put them at risk.”

Leaders at the Cherry Creek School District, which provides education for the Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center in Centennial, also decided that when their schools moved to remote learning this spring, that would include the detention center rather than continue to send teachers into the facility.

Pueblo has been working with the state to get Chromebooks and laptops into the Pueblo Youth Services Center since last July, Smith said, but right now the detained youth are getting the same paper packets as other children in the school district.

The lack of compliance has frustrated youth services officials. When Polis signed the executive order, all principals serving youth centers were notified of the order and the negotiations, Conor Cahill, a Polis spokesman, said in an email.

“The division has had conversations with the governor’s office, (Colorado Department of Education) and the attorney general’s office in an effort to problem-solve and ensure compliance with the law and associated order,” Ruble, the Department of Human Services spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The detention education within youth centers is not based on a contract; rather, it is based on partnership and the expectation in statute and the executive order. Therefore, the Department of Human Services has no current avenue of recourse.”

David Domenici, executive director for the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, said there’s no perfect way to be educating youth inside locked facilities during these times, but that a mix of in-person help and virtual education can be done. Teachers in the high-risk category for COVID-19 should avoid coming in, he said, but if there are good safety and health protocols in place at different facilities, in-person education is a world better than isolating youth for 20 hours a day.

Testing, cases and masks

After two months without a positive COVID-19 case among youth inside a Colorado juvenile facility, two offenders recently were confirmed to have contracted the new coronavirus — though the Division of Youth Services will not say where they are being held. Neither individual got sick within the youth centers, the department said. One youth has remained in medical quarantine since they entered the facility, while another was in medical isolation before being released a day later.

The state didn’t have a positive test among youth until May, but only some two dozen individuals had been formally tested until recently. Last week, all staff and youth inside the Platte Valley center were tested, with 182 of the 185 tests coming back negative, Ruble said. Two results were pending and another needed to be retested.

Jacobson cited a lack of available tests for the reason that so few youth had been tested.

Meanwhile, seven staff members have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to department data. The Division of Youth Services refused to provide The Post a list of where these employees worked, citing federal medical-privacy regulations. First Amendment attorneys representing The Post argued in a letter to the state that those regulations should not be relevant to these records.

Masks also took many weeks to become available to youth. Originally, the department handed out cloth masks, but these were then taken away after staff realized the ties that went around the head could be used for self-harm, Ruble said. The 17-year-old in Platte Valley said he watched one youth in his pod pull the metal out from inside the mask.

Two weeks ago, the department received 40,000 medical masks to hand out, Ruble said.

While Colorado has not seen a major outbreak inside its youth facilities, experts have warned these types of buildings are ripe for the virus to spread.

At least 488 youth and 580 staff at juvenile facilities across the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19, though that number is likely much higher since some states do not report data, according to the Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit organization.

These includes outbreaks at facilities in Louisiana, which led to mass escapes and riots. In a facility outside Richmond, Virginia, 26 inmates and seven staff members contracted the virus, leading the corrections center to stop visitation, suspend schooling, end counseling and lock some teens in their cells 23 hours a day to stem the outbreak.

“These places are petri dishes for coronavirus,” said Vidhya Ananthakrishnan, director of youth justice at the Columbia Justice Lab in New York.

Stephanie Villafuerte, Colorado’s child protection ombudsman, said it’s easy for those inside youth detention centers to get lost in the shuffle.

“These are the most hidden kids in our community,” she said. “And because they are literally hidden from community view, they are literally at the most risk.”

The teen inside Platte Valley said some of those inside talk about the virus, while others don’t seem to care. Still, if more kids start getting sick, he said, “it puts us all in danger, you know?”

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