COVID-19 infects juveniles in 30 FL detention centers and youth prisons

Data collected by The Sentencing Project shows COVID-19 infections among juvenile inmates and employees in states around the country. It says Tennessee reports the most, followed by Florida. Credit: The Sentencing Project

Coronavirus had infected 174 youth and employees at 30 Florida juvenile detention centers and juvenile prisons through Friday, with three facilities in Palm Beach and Okeechobee counties accounting for more than half the cases.

Those numbers come from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, which holds children and youths up to age 21 in detention centers and prisons.

The Sentencing Project, a national criminal-justice reform policy and research organization, has cited Florida as having the second-most cases of COVID-19 among juveniles and staff at juvenile facilities in the nation, following Tennessee.

Through Friday, the Department of Juvenile Justice reported 85 positive tests for COVID-19 among youth in short-term detention centers and long-term residential facilities, and 89 confirmed cases among employees. It has reported no fatalities.

Communications Director Amanda Slama said the agency is holding 535 youth in its 21 state-operated detention centers for minors who are non-adjudicated or are awaiting placement, and 1,202 more in its 51 long-term residential commitment programs.

She said COVID-19 infections have been confirmed at 30 of the combined 72 facilities, including 20 that had only one to three confirmed cases through Friday.

“I think we have a good handle on it,” Slama said, conceding that even one illness is cause for concern.

The agency “has coordinated a proactive and comprehensive response to keep all youth and staff safe within state-operated juvenile detention centers and residential commitment programs. DJJ’s facilities are well equipped to handle these positive cases. Each facility, as part of their pandemic plan, has procedures in place on how to handle isolating and providing medical treatment to youth.”

Joshua Rovner, senior advocacy associate with The Sentencing Project, found Florida’s coronavirus caseload among incarcerated juveniles alarming.

“The number of COVID-19 cases and the number of facilities where those cases have emerged make Florida a leader in failing to contain this virus,” Rovner told the Phoenix. “Only one other state has more cases than does Florida, but I’m not aware of any other state where the virus has emerged in so many places. The trends are simply awful.

“The obvious solution is to release as many youths as possible as soon as possible and to provide needed care and services in the community.”

Slama said officials are negotiating with prosecutors in Florida in hopes of finding “a way to not place them [youths]” in detention or residential facilities during the pandemic if they pose little risk to public safety or themselves.

The Sentencing Project says its data indicate 788 cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated juveniles nationwide.

In Florida, the worst reported outbreak has been at Palm Beach Youth Academy, with 21 infected and four still in medical isolation. The Palm Beach Academy Substance Abuse facility reported another 10 youth infections, with only one still in medical isolation. The two units hold 82 boys aged 15 through 21, according to the agency’s website about its facilities.

In nearby Okeechobee Youth Development Center, 16 youth have been confirmed positive for coronavirus, with two still in medical isolation. Officials describe the residential center as a behavioral, and mental health treatment facility for 48 boys aged 13 through 21.

Oak Grove Academy in Jasper, near Live Oak, reported nine youth infections among the 40 boys housed there, ages 14 through 19. All nine were in medical isolation as of Friday. The agency describes Oak Grove as a non-secure residential facility that provides substance-abuse treatment.