Lawyers say Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services and the Department of Correctional Services aren’t being transparent about conditions in juvenile detention centers.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Eddie Conway: I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore for Rattling the Bars, which is for The Real News Network. There’s been a coalition of lawyers that have gotten together to look into juvenile detention centers to find out what young people are eligible for release, what young people are being held before trial. And they’re trying to expedite the early release of as many of these young people as possible in the juvenile center because of the COVID pandemic. So joining me today is [Jenny Egan 00:00:00:41], who is the chief counsel for the Maryland Public Defenders. She’s a chief juvenile counselor. Jenny, thanks for joining me.
Jenny Egan: Thank you for having me, Mr Conway.
Eddie Conway: Well, Jenny, can you tell us what’s going on in the juvenile detention centers in Maryland?
Jenny Egan: So the juvenile detention centers as they were before COVID-19 are filled mostly with low level offenders. So according to the Department of Juvenile Services, 74% of kids committed to its care, so those kids who are in youth prisons or youth placements, 74% of them are there for nonviolent felonies, misdemeanor offenses or technical violations of probation. And that’s true of 58% of kids in Department of Juvenile Services run youth jails or juvenile jails. And so what is happening for those children as COVID-19 has taken over is that many of them have been exposed. DJS has confirmed 13 cases in its 13 facilities, but that’s only what’s been confirmed. There has not been [inaudible 00:02:00] testing, so we don’t know how many kids are actually sick or who have been exposed.
For those children who have been exposed to positive staff members or other positive children, they’re being put in solitary confinement. They’re being locked in their cells 23 and a half, sometimes 24 hours a day. Children as young as 10 and 11 years old are being put in solitary confinement allegedly for their own protection.
Eddie Conway: What are the obstacles to getting young people released that are being held pretrial or that are vulnerable? What’s the problem?
Jenny Egan: The obstacles have been evolving, so the obstacles in the first two weeks of the pandemic were different than the middle two weeks and different from the most recent two weeks. But the biggest obstacle is the system’s commitment to mass incarceration and bureaucracy like the criminal and justice system that we have moves and turns very slowly. So first there were a number of courts that were slow to react to the crisis and did not foresee how difficult and how dangerous these facilities would become. So at first many courts across Maryland reacted slowly to the threat. The second problem is that things are more difficult now that we’re working remotely. As attorneys, we don’t have access to in-person visits, we don’t have access to courtrooms.
And so figuring out how to file and make sure that cases were getting docketed is very difficult when everyone is working via email. And third, there is a sense or a myth around kids in jail. One, people forget the kids are in jails and prisons. These are not cushy home-like settings. The jails that DJS operates are concrete walls and steel beds. There are toilets and sinks in the rooms with kids. They are jails. They are inhumane, horrible places. And part of the barrier is overcoming the misinformation around the conditions that children are held in. And then the next one, there’s been a number of problems. Some courts have continued to hold and argue that kids are safer in jails than they would be at home, which we know is true.
No one in the state Department of Health or even DJS is claiming that that’s the case. But we’ve had judges hold that on the record and that’s why we had to bring a suit in the Court of Appeals. Our writ of mandamus was denied, but Judge Barbera as we requested, issued an administrative order that said that this is an emergency and that these facilities pose real risk to kids. And only since that order came out about a week ago, have courts had to start making a determination whether or not kids are safer at home or in these facilities and really start dealing with the facts about what happens with outbreaks in congregate care facilities.
So the barriers have been multifaceted. It’s a bureaucracy. It’s been members of the bench and it has been the Department of Juvenile Services who has not been transparent about the risk posed to kids in its facilities, has not been transparent about how the measures that it is taking do not prevent widespread outbreaks. So DJS along with DOC will say, “This is what we’re doing. We’re making sure soap is provided, which it wasn’t in the beginning of the outbreak. We’re making sure the kids stay physically distanced and all of those things.” But they’re only doing that for kids who present symptoms. It creates a perverse incentive for children not to report if they feel sick. Right now DJS is not testing every kid who’s exposed. What they’re doing is a kid gets exposed, they put them in solitary, but they don’t test them.
So the kid was at risk enough to isolate them but not at risk enough to test them and find out if they might be sick. And DJS has simply not been transparent about the fact that they could take every step possible in a congregate care facility and it doesn’t stop the hundreds of staff that go in and out of that building from re-exposing children every day. We need widespread testing of every child in every facility and we need DJS to get a clear expert recommendation about how many kids need to be removed in order to keep a facility safe or to maintain physical distancing for those children that do remain. And they have not done that six weeks into this pandemic.
Eddie Conway: Okay. And you say some of the young people in these systems are as young as 10, 11 years old and so on?
Jenny Egan: In solitary confinement. Yes. The Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center was one of the first DJS facilities to have a positive staff member. And there are very young children there who were then placed in what DJS euphemistically calls medical isolation. But that is being placed in a cell for 23 and a half hours a day. And the children were 10 and 11 years old. I have clients, my office has clients as young as 13 who are in solitary confinement sitting on Gay Street in Baltimore City.
Eddie Conway: So you said you have filed legal action and even though the action has been turned down, there was a emergency order out. Who’s monitoring what they’re doing now beyond this point.
Jenny Egan: It’s difficult to say. We believe that there needs to be more oversight. We would hope that legislatures and politicians would exert more oversight over DJS and the Department of Corrections who also has young people and children in its care, children charged as adults. We believe that there needs to be more oversight about how these conditions are being met, but also that every facility should have an estimate of how many people must be released in order to maintain physical distancing and for the outbreak not to spread inside.
It’s not enough to say we want to release a certain category of people. We have to know how many people a facility can safely maintain and then meet that goal, but they’re doing it the other way. And that is our concern is that DOC and DJS are not being clear on how many children must be removed from the facilities in order for the children who remain to keep physical distancing and remain safe.
Eddie Conway: So what can the public do if anything, to speed up the process of some oversight or some change?
Jenny Egan: For Maryland, we have a petition for Secretary Abed, it’s a hashtag bring our kids home. We would ask everyone to sign that petition as soon as possible, but call your legislators, tell them that DJS has over 500 kids in its care and we believe they must be brought home in order to keep them, the facilities, staff members, and all our communities safe. The problem with outbreaks inside is that they don’t stay inside. Outbreaks affect staff members, corrections officers, all of their families, and all of the community that comes into contact with those people.
In order to keep our community safe, we have to know how many kids need to be removed from those facilities so that they can be kept safe. Call your legislators, call your local policymakers and stakeholders and ask them to release children as soon as possible. We should not wait.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Thank you for that update, Jenny, and I think we will be back to you again later on.
Jenny Egan: Thank you, Mr Conway.
Eddie Conway: Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.