PROTECT INCARCERATED JUVENILES AND THEIR FAMILIES DURING THE COVID-19 CRISIS
Our Letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham
April 16, 2020
Dear Governor Lujan Grisham and Secretary Blalock,
On behalf of a community coalition focused on juvenile justice, we are writing to express our concerns regarding the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated youth in our state. As New Mexico has taken steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 by closing schools, canceling events and supporting kids in their homes and communities, New Mexico has very glaringly left behind one group of youth: those who are currently in juvenile detention and incarcerated in youth prisons. We strongly urge you to act NOW to keep ALL New Mexico youth safe in this crisis.
Groups ranging from Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform to current and former juvenile detention and corrections administrators have expressed their concern about the ability to keep youth and the adults who work with them safe from COVID-19. As of April 11, 2020, 55 youth in facilities in 12 states, and 84 staff members working with youth in facilities in 23 states have tested positive for COVID-19. Because there has been no transparency regarding what is happening in New Mexico’s youth incarceration facilities, we do not know what the numbers are here. As people who are committed to the health, welfare and safety of our most vulnerable and marginalized populations, especially our youth, we are calling for immediate and decisive actions from the Governor, the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD), county youth detention facilities, District Attorneys, the Law Office of the Public Defender and law enforcement agencies in New Mexico.
New Mexico has the unfortunate reputation of faring poorly on indicators of child well-being. Now is the time to show that ALL of New Mexico’s youth are worthy of care, safety and protection. We are urging those with the power to do so, and to address the demands listed below. These measures will not only reduce the likelihood of the spread of COVID-19 within the youth facilities, but will also work to stop the spread to the un-incarcerated population. As the Bail Project points out, “The safest way to ensure that any jail does not become a vector for COVID-19’s spread is to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated.” Public safety is not threatened by releasing people, as evidenced by the release of our incarcerated brothers and sisters throughout the country. Our demands are:
We demand the immediate release of all incarcerated youth vulnerable to COVID-19, including those with asthma, cancer, hepatitis c, and diabetes. Young people who are being held away from their families have frequently experienced trauma, which can affect the immune system, thus causing vulnerability to COVID-19.
We demand the immediate release of youth who do not pose a threat of “serious bodily injury that is reasonably identifiable” to their family or a caring adult or into the Community Custody Program (CCP) instead of detaining them in institutions.
We demand that every youth who remains incarcerated has immediate access to warm water, soap, hand sanitizer, comprehensive sanitation and cleaning of facilities, CDC recommended screening for all staff, and other safety measures free of charge. Additionally, youth who remain incarcerated will be allowed to speak by phone everyday to those in their support system.
We demand that the CYFD and county juvenile detention centers be completely transparent with their plans to keep both youth and staff safe from COVID-19. This includes stopping all new admissions into their facilities.
We demand the immediate release of anyone who is being held for a technical probation or warrant violation. According to the FY2018 CYFD Juvenile Justice Services Report, 20% of referrals are for misdemeanor and probation violation offenses. This includes youth in the CYFD youth prisons who have 90 days or less left on their sentences.
We demand that financial relief be made to anyone released in recognition of the economic impact of COVID-19. Stimulus payments will help these young people and their households, who are facing record-high levels of unemployment.
New Mexico currently has 6 youth detention facilities with 4 actively housing youth, there are four youth prisons and a number of transitional and reintegration centers, with an overall population of approximately 150-250 young people. COVID-19 poses severe transmission risks whenever multiple people are in close physical proximity, regardless of whether an individual shows symptoms. People in jail or prison are unable to practice physical distancing, nor do they have easy access to soap, hand sanitizer, and other preventative measures shown to be effective in limiting the spread of COVID-19. Though a recent NM Department of Health order mandates that “places of lodging” operate at 25% capacity or less to curb potential infection, it has no guidance for jails or prisons; jails and prisons will not have the ability to contain community spread if they are filled near or beyond capacity. Together, these conditions create a situation that threatens everyone incarcerated in a jail or prison, along with their loved ones, staff, and public health infrastructure at large.
When state leaders, including our Governor, officials from the state Department of Corrections, and officials from the Metropolitan Detention Center were asked about preventative measures for COVID-19, the responses, like the measures taken so far, were inadequate. Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison responded in an email that, as of March 11, the DOC had not tested any inmates for COVID-19 (Proctor). No statement was given to acknowledge the young people facing incarceration. We do know that visitation has stopped, programming has changed and the access to phone calls has been limited. For a young person already in a stressed environment, often dealing with underlying trauma, the family support, volunteers and daily schedule of academia are vital to their mental health, the already stressful conditions that our young people who are incarcerated experience, will only get worse.
Can you imagine if it was your child, your niece, your grandson, being held away from your family? Can you imagine not being able to see your loved one or know what is happening to them? Our young people and their families deserve better.
George Luján - Executive Director, SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP)
Victoria Gamble - New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
NEW MEXICO COALITION FOR THE FAIR SENTENCING OF YOUTH