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As COVID-19 Spreads, Advocates Ask PA Supreme Court to Release Vulnerable Youth from Detention Cente

For two weeks, the 16-year-old was locked in a cell at George W. Hill Correctional Facility, in what the staff called “quarantine," but looked and felt like solitary confinement.

Caleb Campbell, from Upper Chichester, was allowed out of the cell — where he was being held awaiting trial — just one hour each day. He could shower, and make a phone call. That’s how he told his mother that he had been exposed to a staff member who may have COVID-19.

There was not enough soap or sanitizer at the jail to keep safe, Caleb said, and there were no masks for him to use as he cleaned the juvenile unit for $10 a shift.

“And then I told my son to put a sock over the phone,” Pamela Campbell said, “because who knows how many people had used it that day?”

Legal organizations filed an emergency petition to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Wednesday to release about 2,000 juveniles held in county detention centers, residential programs and adult jails, as the coronavirus escalates from a threat to a grim reality for those packed into close quarters.

The King’s Bench petition is a powerful, rarely exercised legal tool that allows petitioners to skip lower courts and directly approach the Supreme Court. But the attorneys bringing it forward say that extraordinary circumstances have left them no choice.

Using existing means, Philadelphia’s public defenders have secured the release of only half of the 41 children considered medically fragile at the city’s Juvenile Justice Services Center, where an employee tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday. Leola Hardy, juvenile chief of the Philadelphia Defenders Association, said she has filed 80 emergency motions.

“We feel like our backs are up against the wall," Hardy said, “and that we’re running out of time.”

The petition was brought by Juvenile Law Center — a national, nonprofit children’s organization based in Philadelphia — alongside the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project and DLA Piper, a global law firm based in London.

The petition seeks the release of all youth being detained in the juvenile-justice system, as well as youth like Caleb Campbell arrested for crimes in the adult system, but awaiting trial.

The document prioritizes the immediate release of medically-vulnerable children, those with asthma, diabetes, blood disorders, compromised immune systems, developmental delays, a pregnancy, or a heart, lung or kidney disease. But the attorneys make the case that all youth — with the exception of those who pose a clear risk of harm to others — should be given virtual hearings and released from these detention centers, jails and residential programs.

“There’s simply not the space to be socially distanced when you’re sleeping in the same room with 20 to 30 other people and your beds are three to four feet apart and nailed to the floor,” said Lauren Fine, co-director of YSRP. “The facilities aren’t set up to be able to comply.”

Jessica Feierman, senior managing director for Juvenile Law Center, said many of the youth they’ve spoken with don’t have adequate access to sinks or soap.

“There may be three cells, one of which has a sink, and the freedom of movement in many facilities is limited,” Feierman said. “So if you sneeze, you can’t necessarily immediately walk over to the sink and wash your hands with soap and water.”

Twelve inmates in Philadelphia jails have tested positive for the coronavirus, city officials said Wednesday. At New York City’s Rikers Island, hundreds of inmates and staff members have tested positive at a rate more than seven times the general population.

Although children are widely considered less vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19 than older adults, they can still contract it to devastating effect. Last week, a California mayor announced that a 17-year-old who tested positive for coronavirus and later died had been denied treatment at an urgent care center because he lacked health insurance. In Philadelphia, there have been at least 18 confirmed cases of coronavirus among people under 20.

Feierman said she was also concerned that social distancing attempts by these facilities would lead to teenagers being held in solitary confinement, as Caleb was. “We know solitary confinement is devastating and can lead to long-term harms for young people,” she said.

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