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More than a month after a District juvenile corrections officer lost his life to the novel coronavirus, a group of parents and advocates have coalesced around efforts to ensure the safety of youth detainees at the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services (DYRS) Youth Services Center and New Beginnings Youth Development Center.
The group, known as the Committee of Concerned Parents and Citizens, gathered outside of DYRS headquarters on Mt. Olivet Road in Northeast last week to demand that administrators provide facial masks and hand sanitizers to youth, implement social distancing rules and facilitate the early release of nonviolent inmates.
A representative of the committee said concerns arose out of conversations with DYRS employees who recounted several colleagues falling sick and the denial of youth recreation time and masks.
“We are disappointed that nonviolent offenders have yet to be released by youth detention centers. This reluctance to act in the best interest of detainees is [seen] as [a] disgrace and must be dealt and handled with dire consequences,” a statement by the Committee of Concerned Parents and Citizens read.
“This is not the time to hold nonviolent offenders during a pandemic. Human survival is paramount at this hour. It makes no sense to not release nonviolent criminals for their safety. The solitary confinement of youth detainees is another concern. It seems cruel and unusual punishment that youth are not able to have recreation during COVID-19.”
Some of the parents declined The Informer’s request for an interview out of concern for their children’s safety. On Friday, they are expected to testify before the D.C. Council Committee on Recreation and Youth Affairs during a virtual budget oversight hearing centered on DYRS and the Commission on Fathers, Men and Boys.
These events unfold as officials at D.C. Jail continue to fight the spread of coronavirus throughout the facility. By early May, more than 130 inmates and 40 staff members had reportedly contracted COVID-19, prompting calls for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) to improve jail safety.
The mayor has since announced DYRS Director Clinton Lacey as the lead on that project which includes deep cleanings and daily showers for isolated inmates.
As of May 16, more than 7,000 people in the District have contracted the coronavirus, including 274 young people under the age of 18. Bowser recently extended the District’s public health state of emergency to June 8, saying there hadn’t been a significant enough reduction in cases to warrant a return to normalcy.
Last week, four youth at the Youth Services Center who tested positive for the coronavirus had been relegated to isolation units, while other young people were moved to what officials described as “soft quarantine” units that had been designed to limit youth movement and the potential spread of COVID-19. At the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, located in Northwest, the five youth who had been isolated have since tested negative for coronavirus. No youth are currently in isolation there, a DYRS media relations official told The Informer.
Since the District entered a public health state of emergency, DYRS officials reduced its youth detainee population at the Youth Services Center by 50 percent, via community supervision and communication with parents, guardians and service providers. Youth who’ve since entered the facility have been tested with technology that officials say produces results within 15 minutes.
In a May 14 statement, Lacey said detainees still at the Youth Services Center and New Beginnings Youth Development Center stay in their rooms and have been given masks. He also noted that staff members, in accordance with recommendations from the DC Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, use infrared thermometers to measure detainees’ temperature and conduct daily symptom checks.
They have also been provided with adequate personal protective equipment at Youth Services Center and New Beginnings for youth detainees and those in direct contact with them.
“Our dedicated staff and leadership have demonstrated a high level of commitment, compassion and professionalism in the face of this public health crisis and in service to our youth,” Lacey said last Thursday.
“I am proud of the DYRS staff for their high level of responsiveness and all of the work that they’ve been doing since the onset of COVID-19,” he continued. “That level of preparedness and their ongoing efforts help us continue to do the work of the agency on behalf of our youth and families.”