Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights is one of a number of facilities being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in part due to staffing issues by the Department of Probation. On Dec. 9, the L.A. County Department of Probation, which oversees youth justice, released a weekly update of COVID-19 data which included numbers of infected staff and youth. According to data, four youth at CJH and 295 probation officers throughout the county have tested positive, 148 in detention facilities and 152 from field offices. The department does not release location-specific data for probation officers because they oftentimes work at multiple facilities. This is an increase from the previous week in which 260 employees tested positive, 128 in detention facilities and 132 field staff. CJH did not respond for clarification of data and directed inquires to the Los Angeles County Department of health.
These numbers have drawn concern from the Los Angeles Probation Commission. At the time of writing, Pfizer received emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration to deliver vaccines across the country. The first round of inoculations was given to healthcare workers at Kaiser Hollywood on Dec. 14. However, it is not clear when the vaccine would be given to incarcerated individuals or those working in detention facilities.
In an interview, Probation Commission President Joe Gardner said that he was unsure when probation workers and youth at facilities would receive the vaccine, and that employees might be considered essential workers.
“We thought the deputy probation officers that work at the camps, juvenile halls are maybe going to be considered frontline people to get the vaccine,” he said. “But there’s no clarity on that. And the department hasn’t really said anything about that as of yet because I think this is rolling out pretty quick.”
Not everyone believes that probation workers should be among the first to be vaccinated. Armando Igari, 33, said that it should be even though probation employees work with incarcerated youth it should be frontline medical workers who are first in line.
“I don’t think that they should be a priority. I think that people who work in medical facilities and people of the elderly, who are most vulnerable, in our own enclosed spaces should be prioritized at the moment,” Igari said. However, to ensure the safety of youth and employees at juvenile halls it is important to be vaccinated. Employees who are out sick or on family leave are being replaced by those who do not normally work with incarcerated youth and may not know how to deal with difficult situations.
At the time of writing, probation workers are being deployed to multiple locations and some are even being called from field offices to work in halls and camps.
In a November letter to Interim Chief of Probation, Ray Leyva, Gardener listed concerns regarding the managing of COVID-19 precautions. One issue is the deployment of field office staff to multiple facilities which Gardner said seemed likely to spread the virus.
Gardner wrote, “Why are camps and halls so understaffed that despite low populations they must rely on field staff forced outside their comfort zones to adequately staff the facilities.”
The letter also included a list of grievances such as the optional use of masks at facilities, lack of communication when officers test positive and physical safety concerns.
“Complaints were heard from field office senior staff that they were expected to work late into evenings and return to their regular field office assignment early the next morning. Some endured long commute times and shortening shift turn-around times” the letter read. “Other field office staff found it necessary to cover caseloads for staff deployed at camps and halls.”
In a Dec. 2nd response letter, Leyva wrote, “Due to the pandemic, we have had to increase our staffing due to social distancing requirements, transporting youth to kiosks for DMH [Department of Mental Health] appointments, virtual appointments for court and attorneys, escorting and supervising youth in school. Small groups are required for activities, such as recreation which require additional staff. Additionally, we have a significant amount of staff out on FMLA, Medical Leave or IA. Adding on to this list are the staff that are out due to COVID or childcare issues as schools are closed or conducted remotely.” Leyva did not respond for comment.
When asked if the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had made any plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in youth detention facilities, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair and First District Supervisor Hilda L. Solis that the health and wellbeing of youth in detention facilities was important.
“Reducing the spread of COVID-19 within Los Angeles County’s juvenile halls, probation camps, and entire jail system is critical for protecting those who are in the County’s care as well as ensuring our employees who work at these facilities are kept safe and healthy,” said Solis.
“People of color make up the majority of our incarcerated population, and they are the people who suffer the most from limited access to high-quality health care. We must do everything possible to protect these vulnerable populations, including releasing and diverting those who qualify.”