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The first incarcerated person to die of COVID-19 passed away two weeks ago.

Carlos DeLeon had been cleared for release and suffered from an underlying medical condition which made him more susceptible to complications — yet he remained incarcerated for lack of an “appropriate home sponsor.” So he stayed in prison. He got sick. He died.

I find it unacceptable that in normal times, we would choose to continue incarcerating individuals simply because they do not have access to the resources needed to successfully re-enter their communities, instead of working with them to ensure they have those supports. I find it even more outrageous that in these extraordinary times, in these life-or-death situations, our systems would fail to implement the necessary measures to protect individuals like Mr. DeLeon.

My organization, the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, works to protect the rights, futures, and well-being of potentially, currently, and formerly incarcerated youth. As youth advocates, you might wonder why Mr. DeLeon’s needless death hits us so hard? It’s not simply because there are incarcerated children in Connecticut who could be the next Mr. DeLeon. Or because we believe no person should remain locked up and die from a preventable situation. This hits especially hard because of the horrifying precedent it sets: it says we will not do all we can to ensure incarcerated people stay alive.

As I write this, there are still 46 children held in confinement by the Judicial Branch and about 45 children incarcerated in adult prison under the supervision of the Department of Correction. There are children sitting in jail cells because they have been exposed to the virus, have to be in quarantine, or because they don’t have a safe home to return to. There are children in cells because we don’t have the will — or in some cases, the way — to create individualized supervision and services plans to support them in their communities. We’ve fought against Connecticut’s increasingly out-of-step policy of incarcerating children in adult prison (Manson Youth Institution (MYI) and York Correctional Institution), which has been proven in study after study to be bad for youth and public safety outcomes. We’ve fought against policies looking to jail youth who are “a risk to themselves” or “have no safe home” because we believe we owe suicidal and abused youth better than a jail cell. We have been fighting against these unacceptable realities of our justice system for years.

The children incarcerated through the Judicial Branch and the Department of Correction have almost uniformly experienced tragedy and trauma in their lives.  Many have been in and out of the child protection system, carry significant mental health diagnoses, or face serious developmental or medical issues. Does that mean they shouldn’t be held accountable when they do wrong?  Of course not. But it does mean there are underlying reasons for their choices that must be addressed. Cages don’t address those underlying problems and they don’t work to achieve rehabilitation or repair harm.

We cannot forget that, as a result of systemic racism and structural inequities in place for generations, the majority of youth currently detained in Connecticut are black and Hispanic. Data analyzed by the state shows that system reforms have helped white youth much more than they have helped black and Hispanic youth and has shown that black youth are more likely to be transferred to the adult court than their white peers.  Leaving these youth in confinement during COVID-19 once again ignores and perpetuates racial injustices.

We, along with our advocacy colleagues, have repeatedly heard the misconception that calling for the mass release of incarcerated individuals implies a thoughtless, haphazard unlocking of all cell doors, with no support or supervision of those who walk out.  In reality, public health experts and advocates like us have called for the thoughtful examination of the incarcerated population to find people exactly like Mr. DeLeon, and to create individualized plans to get them back to their communities. 

For over a month we’ve been advocating for the thoughtful and strategic release of youth in detention and incarceration facilities. Honestly, we’ve been advocating for that very thing for years. There are other ways to hold youth accountable and to ensure they understand and can work to repair any harm they may have caused that are more humane and effective than a prison cell. That’s true every day, not only during a global pandemic when keeping children in cells signals to them that we don’t care about their well-being. To be safely released, many youth will require individualized plans to ensure they are safely housed, their medical and mental health needs are met, and that they have access to necessary education and recreation. In other words, they’ll need support.

Since the onset of this pandemic, the number of youth held in juvenile detention centers or secure confinement run by the Judicial Branch has decreased by about 45%.  That’s an important step, and more needs to be done. The Judicial Branch should be making use of existing technologies to further decrease the number of confined youth.  For example, other states have probation officers regularly checking in with clients through video chat. Connecticut’s probation officers don’t have smartphones to use.  Without the ability to regularly speak with clients, the role of probation is severely limited.  More options for tech-enabled community support and supervision could mean fewer kids locked up.  Seven youth have tested positive in Hartford’s juvenile detention facility, leading to various levels of isolation or quarantine and severely restricting kids’ out-of-cell time.  Even though this isn’t designed as punishment, spending the vast majority of your day in your room is not healthy.  We know that kind of isolation can quickly break down the mental health of adults.  These are children.

We appreciate that the Judicial Branch is responding to this extraordinary situation like the life-or-death crisis it is.  The Department of Correction is not doing the same.  The number of incarcerated youth under 18 in adult prison has barely changed since this crisis started. The department has been very clear and public about the fact that they are not now, and do not plan to start, working to create thoughtful plans to release youth to their homes or other safer environments.  School and most other programming for these youth has stopped and COVID-19 is being contracted at alarming rates by everyone in the prisons — staff and those incarcerated.  Conditions of confinement for the 15- to 17-year-olds in MYI were under federal investigation before they were undermined by a global pandemic, and yet DOC will not speed up the release process for even those youth within 30 days of their original release date.

This is why we need strong, urgent leadership at the highest level. We need the governor to issue an executive order.  Transferring youth out of Judicial Branch and Department of Correction incarceration will require interagency cooperation, creative use of funding, support of community re-entry programs, and the commitment to moving with an urgency that reflects the actual life-and-death situation incarcerated youth are facing. 

In so many other areas, the governor has shown the willingness to pull out all the stops, changing the “normal” way of doing things to ensure people have what they need to be safe and healthy.  So then why can’t our government do that for incarcerated children? Or rather, why won’t they?

My heart hurts for Mr. DeLeon and his family.  My heart is broken by the fact that there are going to be more needless deaths like this in the days to come.  But my biggest fear is that the next preventable death could be that of a child.

Abby Anderson is the executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of