Riots, escapes and pepper spray: Virus hits juvenile centers

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FILE – This May 18, 2004 file photo shows Inmates sitting in one of the cottages at the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility in Circleville, Ohio. A new federal report has found the number of kids who say they’ve been sexually victimized while in juvenile detention centers is dropping across the U.S. compared to years past. But remarkably high rates of sexual victimization persist in 12 facilities stretching from Oregon to Florida, including Circleville, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics special report released Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. (Tim Revell/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File)

Nicole Hingle wasn’t surprised when the call came. Frustrations had been building inside juvenile detention centers nationwide as the number of coronavirus cases continued to climb. Now, her 17-year-old son Jace, was on the phone telling her around 40 kids had rioted at his facility in Louisiana — the same state where more than a dozen youths escaped during two breakouts at another site this month.

Hingle said her son described whirring helicopters above the Bridge City facility just outside New Orleans. Juveniles kicked down their doors, a SWAT team swarmed in, kids were pepper-sprayed and a staffer was injured during the melee.

“It’s a real mess,” the teen told his mother. “Everything is destroyed.”

Due to coronavirus lockdown measures, it’s been more than two months since Hingle has been able to visit her son. She has accused administrators of keeping her in the dark, and said she was growing increasingly upset by the lack of a clear plan to protect or release those held inside. Ten youths have tested positive at Bridge City in recent weeks.

“This could be life or death for my child,” said Hingle, adding that her son was among a group transferred to the Acadiana Center for Youth after the brawl, where they were pepper-sprayed twice over the weekend by parole officers brought in to help due to short staffing.

“I don’t want condolences from the state. I don’t want condolences from the governor,” she said. “I do not want sympathy. I want them to do what is right on behalf of our kids because they cannot save themselves nor can we save them without the help of these politicians.”

As more and more state and local officials announce the release of thousands of at-risk inmates from the nation’s adult jails and prisons, parents along with children rights’ groups and criminal justice experts say vulnerable youths should be allowed to serve their time at home. But they say demands for large-scale releases have been largely ignored. Decisions are often not made at the state level, but instead carried out county by county, with individual judges reviewing juvenile cases one by one.

Such legal hurdles have resulted in some kids with symptoms being thrown into isolation for 23 hours a day, in what amounts to solitary confinement, according to relatives and youth advocates. They say many have been cut off from programs, counselors and school. Some have not been issued masks, social distancing is nearly impossible and they have been given limited access to phone calls home. One mother reported that her daughter was so cut off from the outside world — with no TV and staff not wearing any protective gear — that the girl had no idea a deadly virus was even circulating in America. In some states, authorities have been shuttling kids between facilities, trying to make sure sick and healthy young people are kept apart.

By: MARGIE MASON and ROBIN McDOWELL Associated Press

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