As states across the U.S. took steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 — closing schools and workplaces, canceling events and shifting to supporting children in their homes and communities — one group of young people is being left behind: the nearly 50,000 youth locked up across the country. Releasing young people held in detention centers was the focus of a “Free Our Youth” car caravan in front of the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center (PJJSC) on May 18.
At least two children have tested positive for COVID-19 while in juvenile jail, but the number of incarcerated youth has actually increased from 105 on May 7 to 125 on May 18. An additional 21 young people under 18 are currently in pretrial incarceration in the city’s adult jails, being held indefinitely because the courts are closed due to COVID-19. Many more Philadelphia youth are incarcerated in juvenile placement facilities outside the city, with possible release dates delayed because of court closures.
Speaking outside the center’s front doors, formerly incarcerated young adults, families members of incarcerated young people, community leaders, City Council members and allies took turns describing the deep pain, fear, uncertainty and isolation that children have experienced while locked behind bars, separated from their families during the worst public health pandemic in a century.
‘It made me feel like a caged animal’
Organizers shared an audio recording from one 16-year-old who spent time in adult jail during the pandemic: “We couldn’t come out of our cells that much or interact with each other. It made me feel like a caged animal. Since I’ve been home, it’s been hard to sleep.”
“As a parent, it’s heart-wrenching,” said Zekiya Cherif, whose 18-year-old son was recently transferred from PJJSC to another state facility. “It’s almost like your child’s life could be taken away with a sneeze or a cough. We are here to stand in the gap for our children, who are voiceless.”
Shineal Hunter said: “As an educator, and family member of an African-American youth recently involved with the criminal justice system, I am appalled by the injustices faced by Black and Brown families. … I want to ask Mayor Kenney: If it were a young person in his family, would he act now or allow them to sit in jail during the COVID-19 pandemic?”
City Councilmember Kendra Brooks said, “In juvenile detention facilities, social distancing looks a lot like solitary confinement. This kind of long-term isolation is not only deeply inhumane, but could have longterm effects on youth development. The safest and most ethical thing we can do for them and for our communities is to bring them home.”
Michaela Pommells of Village of Arts & Humanities said, “We call on our city officials to imagine these young people as their own children and respond ethically and responsibly.”
People in cars listened to the event on Zoom as they stopped at the main entrance or drove around the facilities and honked after speeches, mimicking applause.
The community coalition called on officials to halt the new admission of youth to detention facilities; lift all juvenile detainers and bench warrants; prohibit the use of solitary confinement for youth currently in detention; and suspend probation requirements, penalties and collection of fines and fees.
The caravan protest was co-sponsored by The Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project, the Village of Arts & Humanities, Movement Alliance Project, Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, Philadelphia Bail Fund, Decarcerate PA, Reclaim Philadelphia, Amistad Law Project, ACLU of Pennsylvania, Human Rights Coalition, VietLead, National Domestic Workers Alliance-PA Chapter, Project SAFE, Philadelphia Student Union, Philly Neighborhood Networks and POWER Live Free