It was late April and Renee sounded drained and worried. She hadn’t hugged her son or seen his face without a screen pixelating his features since the COVID-19 pandemic began in Colorado more than a year earlier.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said over Zoom. “That is something a parent could never describe. It’s 24/7 of a weight in your heart, not knowing if they’re hurt, if they’re OK, if they’re in trouble. It is an awful feeling that I cannot explain.”
Her 20-year-old son was sentenced to the Youthful Offender System , an alternative prison in Pueblo overseen by the Colorado Department of Corrections, in 2019. (Renee asked that her last name not be used to protect his privacy and prevent retaliation from prison staff.)
Isolation has defined the pandemic experience for many people in Colorado — but for incarcerated youth, it’s only amplified the sense of being alone and forgotten. Family and even attorney visits were halted, and education and other services paused or transitioned online, severely limiting human interaction for children and young adults inside detention facilities. Those who caught COVID-19 or were exposed to the highly contagious virus were further sequestered, placed in rooms alone when possible to protect the health of others.
“We know that attachment and bonding is really important… Then you rip that away and there’s a feeling of abandonment, even though their family is not abandoning them, and they get angry,” said Holly Gummerson, a juvenile defense attorney who previously worked at the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender. “They end up getting into fights with other kids, getting restrained by staff for being angry or for certain things. We expect perfection out of these kids in such an imperfect time in our world and there’s no grace given to them.”
As those on the outside take halting steps toward some versions of normal life, parents of and advocates for incarcerated youth see a different story unfolding on the inside: a too-slow return to regular schedules, continued access issues, and concern over the mental health consequences of a year without connection.
COVID-19 case counts were high in both youth incarceration systems
Colorado has two systems for holding detained and convicted youth. First, there’s YOS, which holds juveniles convicted of specific violent felonies; it’s a medium-security alternative to regular state prisons, designed for rehabilitation and reintegration preparation, and the youth incarcerated there are sentenced to less time than they would be through the traditional system. Second, children and young adults between the ages of 10 and 21 who are awaiting trial or who have been sentenced for lesser crimes fall under the purview of the Division of Youth Services , part of Colorado’s Department of Human Services.
According to the Division of Youth Services’ COVID-19 dashboard, just over 400 youth are currently being held at its 12 juvenile detention facilities. (The average sentence length is 20 months, according to a Department of Human Services spokesperson.)
Since March 2020, 141 children and young adults in the DYS system have tested positive for COVID-19; none have died or been hospitalized. Most cases have occurred at three facilities: Spring Creek Youth Services Center in Colorado Springs, Mount View Youth Services Center in Denver, and Platte Valley Youth Services Center in Greeley. As of May 20, there were four active cases among youth. (DYS staff have been impacted in greater numbers, with 354 positive cases, including 11 active cases among employees as of May 20.)
As of mid-May, the Youthful Offender System was holding 183 young adults. Since the start of the pandemic, 144 youth incarcerated at the medium-security facility have tested positive, with no deaths; there were three active cases as of May 20.
Since COVID-19 entered the U.S., criminal justice reform advocates across the country have pushed for states to release people from incarceration and issue citations rather than arrest individuals to help flatten the COVID-19 case curve within facilities. Colorado is among the jurisdictions that did so, with the Division of Youth Services seeing an approximately 30% decline in its total youth population since March 1, 2020, when the count was 600 detainees. That was achieved both by paroling more youth and through a reduced statewide detention bed cap. (A state bill to permanently cut the juvenile detention bed cap from 327 beds to 215 was introduced in February, and as of mid-May had moved to the House for consideration after nearly party-line votes in the Senate.)
“They made sure kids and staff were protected,” said Stephanie Villafuerte, Colorado’s child protection ombudsman, of DYS’ efforts. Still, as Villafuerte noted, “all those in-person services — education, visitation, behavioral health — all those critically important things to stabilize these youth were put into peril.”
Nobody incarcerated at the Youthful Offender System, the juvenile prison, was released early due to COVID-19; the average sentence for youth in the facility is 4.5 years, the average age is nearly 21, and 99% of those in the facility are 18 or older, per a Department of Corrections spokesperson.
Colorado ranks among the 12 states with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses in juvenile detention facilities, according to the Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice reform organization that maintained a running total through late February of this year.
During an early lockdown in 2020, children and young adults at the youth prison in Pueblo weren’t even allowed to use the phones, according to multiple parents. (A Department of Corrections spokesperson confirmed that “there were times during the pandemic where the ability to use phones and video visitation may have been limited given that they are shared equipment, and could potentially be a spread location” for the coronavirus.) This left families of incarcerated youth desperate for information.
“It was pretty scary for them and us,” says Anna, who has a 21-year-old child at the YOS facility in Pueblo. She says she went at least a month with zero communication from him. Prior to that, Anna spoke with her son on the phone daily or every other day. (Anna requested that her and her son’s identity be protected for the same reasons as Renee.)
At all juvenile detention facilities, there were concerns surrounding the treatment of youth who were exposed to COVID-19 or tested positive. Medical isolation requirements—typically, placing individuals in single rooms behind unlocked, closed doors—mimicked solitary confinement, advocates say. (Per protocol, parents or guardians were to be notified of such moves by phone as soon as possible.) There were health and safety reasons for doing so, of course, but research has shown that solitary confinement of juveniles can lead to increased mental health issues, including suicidal ideation and paranoia.
In 2016, Colorado passed legislation restricting such seclusion to emergency situations and for limited periods. An executive order signed by Gov. Jared Polis on April 11, 2020, temporarily suspended the state’s seclusion statutes, among other directives; the order has been extended, with some adjustments, 11 times, most recently on Feb. 25.
Anders Jacobson, director of DYS, says quarantined youth were still receiving services and were “not locked away in a room anywhere.” DYS’ own COVID-19 plan requires that youth are provided with “something to do,” like books or games, and supplied water, Gatorade or the like; they are also required to have access to education, virtual visitations and behavioral health services. “We try to make it as comfortable as possible for those youth,” Jacobson said.
At YOS, some teenagers who did not have COVID-19 told their parents they were being placed in rooms or units with those who had tested positive. Three mothers shared that their children informed them in the fall that guards had moved them into areas with symptomatic individuals. “It seemed like they wanted everyone to get it,” one said in an interview.
In an emailed statement, a Department of Corrections spokesperson said that “all inmates were being regularly tested and co-horted [sic] into the appropriate group based on the results of those tests. As new results come in, people are moved accordingly. This is consistent with the guidance from medical and public health officials, to co-hort [sic] based on positive, negative and exposed inmates.”
Like many people, youth incarcerated at the prison were afraid of the virus. Several of them spoke up about their fears, according to their parents. “It caused a lot of havoc… They reacted badly,” Renee said of her son and other YOS inmates. “It’s not gotten any better since then.”
Kids have become more isolated
For more than a year, youth and their families were limited to telephone calls and fuzzy video visits to stay connected.
“Those weekly visits, where those kids would get snacks and drinks from the vending machine that their parents have to pay for, they no longer got that. They were no longer able to give their family hugs, which is a huge developmental impact for these kids,” Gummerson, the attorney, said. “Literally, [they were] left there alone with staff.” They would have benefitted from more frequent contact with their families, she said.
Renee paid anywhere between $4 and $10 for each video call with her son, and if the chat was cancelled for any reason, she didn’t get her money back. In an emailed response to questions, a Department of Corrections spokesperson said that “limits on visits and phone calls normally associated with individual status at YOS have been removed,” but Renee’s experience was that her son’s privileges based on behavioral status did affect her ability to speak with him. The Department of Corrections also said that incarcerated youth were granted unlimited phone calls, including one free phone call or video visit per week; on Jan. 7, technology provider GTL switched that from a free 10-minute video visit to a 5-minute phone call.
At DYS, Jacobson acknowledges how tough the in-person to virtual transition was on youth, but says the convenience and ease of these digital offerings allowed inmates to connect more often with loved ones on the outside.
It wasn’t until this spring — more than a year into the pandemic — that the children and young adults at DYS were able to see their loved ones in person again. Since April 1, most of its juvenile detention facilities have been open to family and professional visits—albeit with reduced hours, a cap of two visitors at a time, and barriers to prevent touching or hugging. Anyone who arrives in-person is required to take a rapid COVID-19 test before entering the buildings.
“We’re still asking that social distancing take place,” Jacobson said. “It’s going to be difficult for any family member to not want to reach out and give a hug, so we’re relying on education and asking that that does not take place.”
YOS has stricter visitation policies for its inmates and their families, and, as of mid-May, in-person visits still were not permitted at the Pueblo facility, and parents were unclear when they would be able to see their children without a screen separating them.
“I think mentally it’s taken a real toll on the children. They spent a year without their parents, without hugging anyone,” said Cobea Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Juvenile Defender Center. “I think the long-term impact of not having that even face-to-face contact is going to be so astronomical that nobody will be able to really recover from it fully… it’s really a sad, sad situation.”
The Department of Corrections noted in a May 13 email that it had begun to implement its in-person visitation plan. “The ability to re-open is currently based in part on the inmate vaccination rate at the facility,” the spokesperson wrote. At the time, Buena Vista Correctional Facility was the only prison allowing limited in-person visits again. (People incarcerated there were vaccinated ahead of other prison populations after an outbreak of a particularly worrisome variant, according to a CPR report.)
Religious services, behavioral health services and education also shifted online at the onset of the pandemic, and it took time for everything to get back on track, feeding a growing sense of monotony and loneliness among those incarcerated.
“They were literally bored out of their minds,” said Anna. “It was bad on [my son] mentally… You could just hear the difference in his voice. It was like he’d given up hope for anything. I think he was really depressed and just really had given up on thinking that things were ever going to get any better.”
The medium-security facility where Anna’s son is being held offers vocational training and GED programs, but in-person classes were suspended for a period, with pamphlets provided for individual study, according to the Department of Corrections. Live courses have since resumed in smaller groups, though many college classes remain virtual.
At the state’s lower-level facilities, DYS is mandated to provide education to committed youth, and Jacobson said “we never stopped providing education face-to-face” as teaching staff were considered essential employees. In contrast, local school districts handle detainees’ education (those are the kids awaiting adjudication), and districts — and unions — varied in their decisions regarding in-person versus virtual learning.
“Education in juvenile detention facilities even before the pandemic was never outstanding… once the pandemic hit, that issue only became worse,” said Elie Zwiebel, a juvenile civil rights attorney in Denver who specializes in education law. He heard reports of numerous teens gathered around a single iPad and learning packets that were “woefully below grade level,” though things seemed to improve by the fall in terms of technological access.
“Students who are incarcerated are already experiencing a significant education gap, and [these issues] only add to that,” Zwiebel said. “They’re behind and, quite frankly, behind in a way that’d be quite difficult to make up, if not impossible.” These concerns are only heightened for the significant proportion of students with learning or development disabilities, he noted.
This past year was Kenlyn Newman’s first as principal of Adams Youth Services Center in Brighton. Her seven team members taught in person throughout the pandemic, even when the rest of the school district—the education program is run by 27J Schools—was fully remote. Adams shifted to remote learning twice due to COVID-19 illnesses; because of social distancing requirements and just two classrooms in the facility, each staffer had to teach from home one day a week. (They’re moving into a larger venue this month.)
“We were able to do teaching from a TV,” Newman said of those instances. “We had to make adjustments and it probably wasn’t as wonderful as it has been in years past because of all those adjustments, but I don’t think it would be seen as a major disruption.”
Spring Creek, on the other hand, was doing all learning via printed packets for much of the year. And at Mount View, which falls under the purview of Jeffco Public Schools, students transitioned to a fully remote environment in May with teachers relying on video conferencing. When the entire Mount View facility was on quarantine late last year, any work that was sent to the teachers had to be confined in a plastic bag for a week before the teachers could touch it.
“I think we all did the best we could with the information we had,” said Mount View Principal Christopher Lee. The school shifted back to a modified in-person schedule on Feb. 1 and staff immediately noticed the students’ enthusiasm.
“Most of the kids missed the interactions of people,” Lee said. “Kids that we may have seen previously that had behavior issues really haven’t been exhibiting a lot of those behavior issues. They’ve been engaged; they’ve been participating; they’ve been asking questions that they may not have asked prior.”
Zwiebel doesn’t take quite as rosy a view. “The experience for my clients and my colleagues’ clients in DYS and YOS [over the past year] can be summed up in one word: traumatizing,” he said. “You take away all human interaction, you take away education, you’re locked up in a facility — I think, for many of my clients, their mental health disabilities were exacerbated. For many who did not previously have issues like depression or anxiety, they’ve certainly developed it.”
Anna has seen some improvements in her son since he’s been allowed access to the outdoor yard at YOS and schooling has restarted — “I’m starting to hear a difference [in his voice] now,” she said — but she’s also certain his well-being is going to suffer for a long time to come.
“It was a pretty dark time for anybody that was in there. It was bad enough for us out here, so in there, it was just compounded by the not knowing, the being stuck in your room, the absolute boredom,” she said. “It’ll have an effect. I don’t know how severe that impact will be—only time will tell.”
Freelance reporter Daliah Singer wrote this story for The Colorado Trust, a philanthropic foundation that works on health equity issues statewide. It appeared at coloradotrust.org on May 26, 2021.