Legal Aid Justice Center sends letter demanding Dept. of Juvenile Justice keep youth safe

Updated: Apr. 20, 2020 at 5:50 PM EDT
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CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) demanded that the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice should act immediately to protect the health and safety of more than 200 youth incarcerated at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center.

The LAJC addressed concerns that the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility poses an extreme risk to incarcerated youth, staff and the community.

On Monday morning, the LAJC sent a letter to the Department of Juvenile Justice outlining some concerns of their clients. They represent two of the 25 inmates that tested positive at the facility.

The letter says youth inside Bon Air has reported that they are not being provided consistent access to legal counsel, communications with family members, mental health counseling, recreation or basic hygiene. Youth have reported confusion and fear around their diagnoses and the spread of the coronavirus at Bon Air.

“The youth at Bon Air have reported feelings of confusion, fear or grief because they don’t know what the plan is. They don’t know how DJJ will continue to mitigate the crisis. They have been unable to easily reach their family members, they have been unable to communicate their positive diagnoses to their family members, and the youth in their family are really left in the dark," said Rachael Deane, Legal Director of LAJC’s JustChildren Program.

Deane says in the past, the LAJC has sent letters to Governor Ralph Northam and the Bon Air Juvenile Correction Center’s Director, Dr. Valerie Boykin “with a number of concerns, including concerns about the health and safety of prisoners in both the youth and adult criminal legal systems. We followed up on March 26th with a letter to Director Boykin at the Department of Juvenile Justice with more specific concerns about the possible spread of COVID-19 at Bon Air, and with requests that DJJ begin to immediately release any youth who don’t pose an immediate safety threat.”

The Department of Juvenile Justice did not announce positive cases at the correctional facility until last Friday.

“This disease spreads like wildfire in prisons and jails, and the situation at Bon Air is a dire public health crisis,” Deane said, “On behalf of the young people incarcerated in this dangerous setting, we call on the Department to ensure immediate access to medical care and personal protective equipment and to release any youth who do not pose an immediate and identifiable safety threat.”

Public health and correctional medicine experts have warned that prisons and jails are like “landlocked cruise ships,” particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of the virus.

A spokesperson with the Department of Juvenile Justice did release a response to LAJC’s letter, saying “We have been in communication with LAJC, and look forward to continuing a constructive dialogue. As always, DJJ’s top priority is protecting the health and safety of our residents and staff. We will continue to work closely with VDH as we respond to this pandemic.”

The DJJ spokesperson also shed some light on the steps it is taking inside the Bon Air facility, specifically that all residents were being tested twice a day, all staff is required to wear personal protective equipment, as were residents when not inside their rooms.

They did add that of the 25 positive cases, who were sent to medical isolation, at least thirteen of them had already been released from the isolation. The DJJ did not have an updated amount of positive cases as of Monday afternoon.

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