Keep young people in youth prisons safe from COVID-19

They are locked up and away from their families during a global pandemic without autonomy for their living environment or the ability to maintain social distance.

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I think we can all agree that the last week has been a challenging one for Chicago’s youth.

Actually, the last two years — ever since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 — have been challenging for our youth. And while we are all rightly debating what constitutes a safe learning atmosphere for our children, the youth who are always forgotten in these discussions are those behind bars.

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Incarcerated children remain at high risk of COVID-19 exposure and infection in youth prisons across the state as vaccination rates lag in staff and in the incarcerated population.

And while the new Chicago Teachers Union agreement states schools would cut off in-person learning if 30% of school staff are absent due to COVID-19, at the same time, young people in youth prisons are forced to undergo lockdown or solitary confinement if prisons go understaffed.

It’s necessary that we make difficult public health decisions to keep our kids and ultimately our communities safe amid a deadly virus. But this consideration must extend to all impacted people — including incarcerated youth.

Young people in youth prisons are suffering in silence. They are locked up and away from their families during a global pandemic without autonomy for their living environment or the ability to maintain social distance. Incarcerated youth also can’t control when they’re able to be vaccinated or boosted, or if the adult guards with whom they are in close contact every day are fully vaccinated.

In fact, most prison staff in Illinois have still not gotten boosted as Omicron surges in the country and in state prisons. Just 7% of all Illinois Department of Corrections staff have received the COVID-19 booster shot.

Young people’s lives are in jeopardy as long as these harmful prisons remain open, and Illinois’ most marginalized communities are bearing the brunt of youth incarceration.

End the cycle of harm

Further exacerbating the trauma of youth prisons is the neglect, physical and emotional abuse, and inadequate educational services to which young people are subjected during incarceration, leaving them unprepared to adjust to a life outside of the prison system.

The state of Illinois must do better and prioritize investing in its young people over dumping them in inhumane prisons that stunt their growth and dim their futures. We must re-appropriate the resources currently spent on a system that we know does not work and support what children need: housing, mental health services and after-school programs. 

In my heart, I want a better world for my children than the cruelties of our current system, and I demand change from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has the power to end this cycle of harm now.

The atrocities of the youth incarceration system are well documented. Pritzker himself has acknowledged the horrors of youth prisons, noting that our criminal justice system as it stands is too punitive and ineffective at fulfilling its purpose: keeping Illinois families safe.

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Yet, Pritzker still continues to push for a “transformation” of the youth justice system rather than a total overhaul. As the top elected official in the state, Pritzker has the responsibility to end the youth incarceration nightmare by shutting down prisons and investing in a safe and prosperous future for our youth.

As we are forced to reckon with the harsh realities of economic hardship, health insecurities and an uncertain future this new year, there is no reason to keep children locked away in a system that inflicts immense trauma. To keep our communities safe and thriving, we need to treat kids with care rather than incarceration. Our elected officials must understand that the lives and futures of children are at risk as long as youth prisons remain open in the state.

Kids want to be kids and not have their futures upended by an unfortunate mistake. Why shouldn’t Pritzker and our entire community help them do just that?

Alicia Brown lives in Evanston. She is a criminal justice advocate and mother of four who was first incarcerated when she was 22 and pregnant.

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