juvenile justice

Three Juvenile Detention Staff Test Positive for COVID-19, But No Teens Released

The Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, March 20, 2020.
The Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, March 20, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Three staffers who work with youth held at city juvenile detention centers have tested positive for coronavirus, city and union officials said Friday amid growing calls to release teens to protect them and workers from COVID-19.

One individual at Horizon Juvenile Detention Center in The Bronx tested positive for COVID-19, the city Administration for Children’s Services confirmed Friday.

An official at the union representing Horizon staff, Social Services Employee Union Local 371, said the person works as a youth development specialist at the facility, where some 22 detainees, ages 16 to 18, live.

Another 62 youth remain at Crossroads Detention Center in Brooklyn, also run by ACS, where two staff members who help transport teens between the facility and court hearings also have contracted coronavirus infections, their union told THE CITY Friday.

Both are hospitalized with respiratory problems, according to Local 371.

Among those held at Crossroads are three youths charged in connection with the fatal December stabbing of college student Tessa Majors in Morningside Park. Most teens at the facilities, some as young as 13, are awaiting trial.

“Many kids are in probation violation status offenses, non-violent offenses,” said Vincent Schiraldi, a former New York City probation commissioner and co-chair of the national group Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice.

On Thursday, Schiraldi’s group, co-chaired by former ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrión, issued a statement calling for the release of “youth who can be safely cared for in their homes and communities.”

‘Storm is Coming’

Schiraldi noted that many stays in juvenile detention are short term, with a steady stream of young people arriving or departing.

“It’s especially crazy when we think that they might be churning the virus into these facilities and from the facilities back out into their home communities,” said Schiraldi.

Some 40 adults held in city jails had been identified for release by the city Department of Correction as of Friday morning, following demands from defense attorneys and a tweet from the top doctor on Rikers Island warning “a storm is coming.”

“We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom,” Dr. Ross MacDonald tweet. “Think of a cruise ship recklessly boarding more passengers each day.”

The corrections agency is weighing individual health risks and the nature of criminal charges in its release decisions.

The Administration for Children’s Services did not respond to THE CITY’s inquiries about whether any youth in juvenile detention facilities might be released as a health measure.

Separated Beds

ACS has implemented other measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, including suspending visits to detained teens, spacing beds further apart and separating those with symptoms into contained rooms.

School also has been suspended inside both Crossroads and Horizon juvenile detention facilities. But other activities have continued to run in the housing units while ACS prepares remote learning arrangements.

“We can confirm one positive case at Horizon Juvenile Detention Center,” Chanel Caraway, an ACS spokesperson, told THE CITY in a statement.

“In coordination with the Department of Health, as well as the health care professionals who work on-site 24/7, we have cleaned and sanitized all surfaces, implemented social distancing strategies, and continue to issue public health guidance. The safety and health of everyone in our facilities remains our number one priority.”

But safety, say youth advocates, is relative — many worry about the long-term effects of isolating youth from speaking face-to-face with their loved ones and a stop in schooling. Various studies have suggested juvenile detention centers already contain some of the most medically vulnerable youth in the U.S.

“Many jurisdictions are controlling infection risk by suspending visits and volunteer programs that are essential to young people’s well-being. The experience of incarceration, which we know is incredibly damaging to young people in the best of circumstances, just got worse,” said Carrión in an e-mailed statement.

She added: “We should be sending kids home wherever possible.”

Darek Robinson of Local 371 told THE CITY that violence between staff and youth is always a concern, but COVID-19 has created other personal safety risks that leave his members on edge.

“In these detention centers it’s very challenging,” said Johnson. “The challenge is everyone’s confined. The majority of people have to come to work. You have to come to work.”

Robinson said his members are pushing for “some type of contingency plan.”

Like other government agencies, ACS is mobilizing to provide video conferencing as well as remote learning at its secure detention facilities, but without a clear timeline for a rollout.

Bronx resident Jarrell Daniels, who was incarcerated at the now-closed Spofford Juvenile Detention Center as a teen, said contact with loved ones keeps hope alive.

“Once you take those things away, you take away people’s sense of what to look forward to the next day,” said Daniels, now 26. “Everything we do is leading up to that moment.”

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