Dept. of Juvenile Justice responds to Legal Aid Justice Center’s demands to protect youth during COVID-19

Coronavirus

"The health and safety of all youth committed to the Department is our priority."

(WRIC) — The Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has responded to a letter sent by the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) that questions the overall safety of incarcerated youths at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center.

8News reported on April 20 that the LAJC believed the Bon Air correctional center was failing to protect youth during the coronavirus outbreak. In a response Monday, the DJJ says “the vast majority of the organization’s recommended actions had already been in place prior to the receipt of the letter.”

LETTER: Legal Aid Justice Center Demands Virginia DJJ Act Immediately
to Protect Youth Incarcerated at Bon Air From COVID-19 Outbreak

“The health and safety of all youth committed to the Department is our priority,” said DJJ Director Valerie Boykin. “DJJ took early and aggressive action to prepare for, and prevent the spread of, COVID-19 at its only residential juvenile correctional facility, Bon Air.”

The DJJ adds that only three active cases of COVID-19 remain at the facility. According to the response, the three residents “are exhibiting mild or no symptoms.”

8News reported on April 20 that attorneys were worried about their client’s health, saying they were at risk of being seriously ill and even death as a result of the coronavirus. The concern came on the heels of Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center’s admission that 25 youths tested positive for COVID-19 and were receiving “round the clock medical attention.”

In the letter from the Legal Aid Justice Center, youths had reported they didn’t have adequate personal protective equipment, a lack of testing, and poor communication in regards to their diagnosis and next steps for recovery.

In response, the DJJ said, “To determine the prevalence of COVID-19 on the Bon Air campus, early efforts were implemented in consultation with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH). Activities involved social distancing, checking residents’ temperatures two times per day, and testing all youth with an elevated temperature of 99 F or higher for COVID-19.”

DJJ added that these efforts helped slow down the spread of the virus. Additionally, within the past week, only one new case has been reported.

“As we learn more about the evolving guidance on the novel coronavirus and the spread of COVID-19, other facilities are following our lead and beginning to test those in their care with this lower temperature threshold,” Boykin said.

The Legal Aid Justice Center also demanded the DJJ to end, what they call, excessive room confinement during the coronavirus crisis.

8News spoke with Bradley Brewer, who says he knows firsthand what that’s like to live inside Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center.

“Lockdown is the worst,” said Brewer, who spent four years inside the institution. “It’s probably the worst experience because of the physical and mental aspect. Lockdown has been used as an immediate try to fix something and it’s always been an easy fix.”

Legal Aid Justice Center’s letter alleged clients were being kept in their rooms for at least 23 hours per day. Brewer told 8News residents were supposed to get one hour outside their rooms each day but that was not always the case. Even when they get a free hour, Brewer says residents were forced to choose between essential activities like taking a shower or getting exercise. Brewer told 8News he believes this method is harmful to residents.

“It impacts, in my opinion, a teenager or adolescent, bad, even if it wasn’t for this situation, but with the COVID-19 worries added on, not only are you taking a growing, developing individual and locking them in a 10×8 cell, to where all they can do is think, and when your body is resting, your mind’s not,” Brewer said.

In a statement, the Department of Juvenile Justice said, “DJJ has been working to release residents, always keeping public safety in mind, in an effort to reduce our population. Since mid-march, Bon Air’s population has been reduced by approximately 10 percent.”

In response to the DJJ statement, LAJC said the following:

“The Legal Aid Justice Center continues to have concerns about the conditions at Bon Air and the transparency of the administration about measures taken to protect incarcerated youth. We are reviewing the Department’s response and corresponding with our clients.

COVID-19 continues to pose a grave threat to youth in the care of the Department and surrounding communities. The best way to protect youth from this threat is to dramatically reduce the population at Bon Air. Many youth at Bon Air have been committed with indeterminate sentences, meaning the Department itself has the power to release them expeditiously. And for youth serving determinate sentences, we note that the Department has persuasive power with local prosecutors and judges, and the Governor’s broad clemency power could also be used. This administration has the power to continue to reduce the population at Bon Air, but it is choosing not to use it.”

Click here to read the DJJ’s full response to LAJC.

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