Editor's note: This story was co-published with The Imprint, an independent, nonprofit daily news publication covering child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and educational issues. Visit imprintnews.org to learn more.
As the coronavirus tore through the country last year, New York state officials relied on testing to keep people safe in prisons, nursing homes, schools and other group facilities.
Statewide, 13,000 prisoners had been tested by September 2020. Youth accused of crimes awaiting trial in New York City were also regularly tested, with results guiding local health officials’ efforts to contain infectious spread from cramped quarters out into the community.
But during the pandemic’s first six months, there was a different approach for one often-forgotten group — roughly 240 teens sentenced to New York’s nine highest-security youth detention centers located in suburban and rural communities from the Rochester area to Cayuga County and the Hudson River.
According to data obtained by The Imprint, from March through September 2020 there were 26 coronavirus tests taken in juvenile lockups. At each of the two largest facilities, just one youth offender was tested during the six-month period when New York led the nation in infections and dozens of adult prisoners were dying.
The data released by the state reveals another surprising statistic: Although 67 staff came down with COVID-19, there was one lone confirmed case among the hundreds of detained youth — a girl held in the Harriet Tubman Residential Center in Sennett.
Unlike 27 other states, including California, Florida, Texas and New Jersey, New York has not publicly reported coronavirus data for its youth prisons. The now-dated March to September figures were sent to a reporter four months after a Freedom of Information Law request to the state’s Office of Children and Family Services.
That lack of transparency earned New York an “F” grade in a study released in late March by legal scholars at the University of Texas at Austin.
Despite the state’s silence and the intensifying COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the virus does not appear to be sparing these facilities. Two weeks ago, a Columbia County news release announced a rise in the upstate rural region’s infection rate, noting it could be “primarily attributed” to two family clusters and an outbreak at a state-run juvenile lockup in the area, the Brookwood Secure Center.
New York’s lack of public information has also added to the fears of parents whose children were locked inside, some far from home.
One Syracuse mother said she didn’t receive any updates on COVID-19 testing or spread for much of last year while her son, who is asthmatic, was held at the Finger Lakes Residential Center in Lansing. He said he spent weeks at a time isolated or quarantined with others in his dorm when fellow inmates showed symptoms.
“It was crazy what they put the kids through, it was crazy what they put the parents through,” said the mother, Liza Acquah.
Acquah and some public health and juvenile justice professionals also questioned the reliability of New York’s data showing a single coronavirus case among imprisoned youth.
“I’m not buying it. I would be surprised if that were true,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, who directs the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. After reviewing the data provided to The Imprint he added: “This translates to, ‘We have no idea how many kids were infected.’”
In an email response, a spokesperson for the state Office of Children and Family Services, Monica Mahaffey, defended the agency’s actions, stating that their numbers “accurately reflect the infection rates among staff and youth in our facilities, which were kept low and remain low through rigorous adherence to federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and New York State Department of Health guidance.”
The agency also touted how effective it has been in deploying extensive safety measures, which included offering new masks to youth and staff each day, 14-day quarantines for all youth who were newly admitted to each facility, and testing and isolation of any youth who showed symptoms of COVID-19. Cleaning and hygiene has also been stepped up since last March, representatives of the agency said, adding that protections will grow as vaccinations of staff and young inmates are scheduled.
The Office of Children and Family Services is part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, which is now under federal investigation for withholding data on deaths in nursing homes. The Democrat’s administration publicly posts no data on COVID-19 testing or infections in many institutions it runs or regulates, including the youth prisons, runaway and homeless youth shelters, foster care group homes and pretrial juvenile detention centers where news outlets have reported on virus surges.
And while no youth in juvenile justice facilities are known to have died, many question why, at the very least, the data are not made publicly available and why the rate of testing appeared so low at a time when other detention facilities were suffering outbreaks. In just three months last summer, for example, positive cases in three of California’s youth prisons grew 20-fold, and adult prisoners from Rikers Island to San Quentin suffered among the nation’s most deadly outbreaks.
CDC guidance not followed
Children and Family Services houses youth convicted of the most serious offenses — including robbery and homicide — at nine sites located in central and western New York. These higher-security, post-trial locked placements house youth whose ages range between 13 and 20. They provide an on-site school, therapeutic services and skill-building amenities like gardens and an aquaponics classroom.
As of Dec. 31, publicly available state data show a total of 237 residents. Between five and 53 young people were housed at each facility in the fall, according to state data sent to a reporter Friday after months of delay. At least 70% are Black or Latino, and most came from communities outside of New York City.
The COVID-19 data covering March 20 through Sept. 29 shows zero to five staff infections at seven of the eight lockups, while the Brookwood facility upstate saw 11 infections among staff.
The barbed wire-enclosed, 50-bed Highland Residential Center 90 miles north of New York City had the worst outbreak in that time, with 39 staff members coming down with COVID-19. Yet the state data show only three tests were conducted on Highland’s roughly 20 youth residents, and one on Brookwood’s 35 residents. A single test was also conducted in the Industry Residential Center in Rush, which held 53 young people at the time.
The one young person who had a confirmed infection – the sole case reported by the state for the first six months of the pandemic – was housed at the 25-bed Harriet Tubman center for girls in Cayuga County, where eight young residents were under the supervision of 40 frontline staff as of September.
New York continued its practice of sparsely testing incarcerated youth even as public health authorities such as the American Academy of Pediatrics called out their heightened risk, and the importance of public transparency with virus data.
In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance recommending that close-quartered prisons and detention centers consider more aggressive testing strategies "beyond testing only close contacts within the facility to reduce the chances of a large outbreak."
In October, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a 146-page study of COVID-19 response for correctional systems. It recommended juvenile justice agencies reduce their incarcerated populations and post data online daily, including “aggregated data on COVID-19 incidence, testing rates, hospitalizations, mortality, and all-cause-mortality among incarcerated people and staff by age, gender, and race/ethnicity.”
New York has not followed that recommendation, prompting University of Texas at Austin researchers to list the state among seven others that have done the least to shed light on COVID-19 inside facilities. Secrecy during the pandemic, they warned in their new “Hidden Figures” report, makes it “difficult to determine if juvenile corrections agencies are responding to the complex and unique needs of incarcerated youth.”
The authors, who include a co-chair of the American Bar Association's subcommittee on correctional oversight, went on to state that “corrections officials need to switch their mindset to one that recognizes that improved data transparency benefits everyone.”
Some correctional health experts and youth advocates are less critical of New York, pointing to the facilities’ low populations, and testing practices that have varied widely across the country. A spokesperson for a union representing some facility employees praised Children and Family Services’ approach, stating he was not “aware of any larger concerns with the COVID response in OCFS.”
Mark Kotzin, director of communications for the Civil Service Employees Association, further stated in an email: “To our knowledge the state has followed the proper protocols and has worked with the union to protect the workers and the youth they serve to the greatest extent possible.”
Still, there could have been hidden consequences given the virus’ ability to spread among asymptomatic carriers, said several experts and advocates who reviewed New York’s COVID-19 data from youth prisons.
“New York state conducted two dozen tests over a six-month time period?” asked Josh Rovner, of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, who has collected COVID-19 data from juvenile facilities nationwide throughout the pandemic. “The data speak for themselves: New York state didn't want to know if its incarcerated young people were transmitting a deadly virus.”
Meanwhile, public accounts suggest the virus ravaged some juvenile justice facilities shortly after September, the last month included in the COVID-19 data provided to The Imprint.
In an Oct. 29 letter to the state, the leader of a different union representing facility staff described a “resurgence of COVID-19 cases,” particularly in the Finger Lakes Residential Center, where roughly 40 youth are supervised by more than 100 staff. Public Employee Federation President Wayne Spence wrote to Children and Family Services Commissioner Sheila Poole that at least 20 Finger Lakes’ staff were off work with confirmed cases of COVID-19. He described the youth positivity rate as “high enough that visitation for the center was suspended until October 20.”
In a recent interview, Spence said the state agency has not done enough to keep facility staff and residents safe, including providing regular updates on how widespread COVID-19 was in their facilities.
“We had members who said OCFS was really one of the worst agencies that didn’t do much to protect residents and staff,” said Spence, whose union includes more than 50,000 state employees across many agencies. “When the governor put things on lockdown in March, April, May, we were still fighting with OCFS because the kids were still on top of each other in classes without masks.”
The same month Spence’s letter was drafted, the Register-Star in Columbia County reported “more than 20” COVID cases traced to staff or residents of two state-run juvenile facilities in the area, Brookwood Secure Center and the Columbia Girls Secure Center.
“My concern in this situation is not only for those who reside and work in these facilities, but for what it could ultimately mean in terms of possibly causing more wide-ranging community spread,” Jack Mabb, health director for the Columbia County Department of Health told the Register-Star.
Inconsistent testing approaches
If New York state’s juvenile facilities reveal a black hole in terms of transparency, its lack of testing stands in sharp contrast with other parts of the country and even in-state institutions.
Adult prisons in New York, run by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, have been sharing daily case count updates online since last April. And while nearly every parent of a school-age child can check their schools’ COVID-19 data on a state-run website, the nine Children and Family Services juvenile facilities are not included, although they too are part of the public school system.
Texas, Florida, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Maryland and New Jersey, among other states, have regularly updated their websites with testing and outbreak data for juvenile facilities since the early days of the pandemic. Maryland and New Jersey announced universal testing, and by the end of last September had reported 923 and 743 tests of youth, respectively. Texas relied on universal testing at five locked facilities for 700 youth residents and 1,700 employees.
In roughly that same period of testing at nine New York youth prisons, just 26 tests had reportedly been conducted.
“It’s a heartbreaking example of children who get lost in systems that can have enormous consequences for their futures. It does not speak well for our state,” said Redlener of Columbia University, who is also advising New York City’s mayor on the pandemic response. “If we don’t get accurate information, it’s really hard to mount a strategy to deal with controlling outbreaks.”
Michael Fitzgerald is a senior reporter for The Imprint, based in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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