A Letter to Young Folks in Juvenile Hall During the Pandemic

A common area in the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center. (Courtesy of The Design Partnership)

To the young folks in San Francisco's Juvenile Justice Department,

Three weeks ago a rap artist and educator at San Francisco's Juvenile Justice Center, MADlines, put a call out for people to write letters to young folks behind bars. She's since discontinued her efforts, since it's so hard to get messages in, so I figured I'd write this open letter to ya'll.

Earlier this year, elected officials voted to close the facility by the end of 2021. The public record says there are fewer than 33 people incarcerated in the facility right now, and the house list says there are only 15.

The fact there's even one person in there is an issue, so I write to you today because we've failed you.

And more importantly, we need you.

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I visited the Juvenile Justice Center a few years back, and the racial makeup stuck with me. A lot of black and Latinx youth—not reflective of San Francisco’s overall population at all. What also stuck with me was the conversations I had, one with a group of young black men, and a separate one with a group of Latino men. Both were so bright and inquisitive and, most importantly, willing to tell their stories.

I took note of how their San Francisco was so different from the one you read about in the San Fransisco Chronicle or KQED. A lot less talk about IPOs and start-ups, more talk about POs and learning to adapt. I bet their tale of America, and the world, is different as well.

It makes me think about a conversation I had last month with Ear Hustle podcast host, Earlonne Woods. He's a little older than you all; after serving 21 years, he had his 31-year sentence commuted in 2018, largely on the strength of the work he did through his podcast, which laid bare our society's shortcomings: our prisons.

Nigel Poor, Antwan Williams and Earlonne Woods in a story pitch session at San Quentin, 2017.
Nigel Poor, Antwan Williams and Earlonne Woods in a story pitch session at San Quentin, 2017. (Courtesy of Radiotopia)

He told me about his experiences dealing with diseases while incarcerated: being quarantined during a norovirus outbreak, navigating around the spread of legionnaires disease and how the officials tried, but failed, at keeping people separated during flu season.

“They try to stop the most minimal movement, so it’ll pass,” says Woods. “But sometimes you’re in places where the ventilation ain’t the best, you know what I'm saying? So there’s a potential there to catch it.”

The structure is permeable on all levels.

Having experienced that, Woods says he’s not shaken by what’s happening now. Even though he recognizes the magnitude of the moment.

“We’re living in a significant piece of history, a worldwide [pandemic] that is killing millions of people and impacting millions more. A generational wave has occurred, and the commonality in this is that finding sufficient shelter is the key to survival.”

And it’s well documented that the prisons, jails, ICE holding centers and juvenile detention centers are anything but that. But somehow, people survive.

I called him that day, not just to check on him, but because of the message he posted on Instagram: “The only people prepared for a lockdown is the formerly incarcerated,” he wrote.

After talking to him, it clicked.

Beyond the spread of a virus and the unfortunate death toll; I've been trying to wrap my mind around how the proverbial system is failing people on multiple levels. There's a general understanding among people I've talked to that isn't just about a virus, but about a flawed system that let this unfortunate circumstance grow out of hand.

We could focus on what public health officials are describing as President Trump's long list of blunders, but long before 45, the system wasn't working.

Health outcomes for working class people of color, specifically African Americans, have been bad since before the Kerner Report was published. (That essentially was a survey where the government looked at the aftermath of a number of uprisings in inner-city America in the 1960s and basically said, Damn, maybe we should figure out why the negroes are so angry.)

California Medical Facility in Vacaville is one of California's 35 state prisons. Advocates are calling for the early release of low-risk jail and prison inmates who are vulnerable to coronavirus.
California Medical Facility in Vacaville is one of California's 35 state prisons. Advocates are calling for the early release of low-risk jail and prison inmates who are vulnerable to coronavirus. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

A recent report showed that nothing had significantly changed in 50 years for black folks in America since that study. And now we have this pandemic.

Stats are starting to roll in from cities, counties and states who dare to report COVID-19 cases by race. Those numbers, coupled with the fact scientists have determined that the virus hits clusters of people with preexisting conditions the hardest, leave a target square on the backs of the state-issued uniforms worn by the black and brown people behind bars.

This country has the most incarcerated people per capita in the world by far. California is currently under a decade-old federal mandate to keep its population below 137% of capacity—the health concerns related to overcrowding were considered cruel and unusual punishment. As of April 1, California's prison system was 130% of its capacity.

The prisons are bad, and the jails are no better.

At Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail, where over 45 people have died in custody since 2014, activists have been working on health-related issues for some time—and that's been intensified during this pandemic. Last month, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee put out a press release with safety demands for the folks behind bars. And over 25 other organizations signed in support of their efforts.

While officials vie for 85 million dollars to hire more guards, there are reports of multiple pods being quarantined and officials testing positive. Just last weekend, the first incarcerated person officially tested positive at Santa Rita.

Officials have pulled some last ditch efforts: according to recent reports, nearly 250 people have been released early from Santa Rita to ease overcrowding, bookings are down and the intake process now involves taking people’s temperatures. But all of that is a tire patch on a sinking ship. And—because incarcerated people interact with staff—that ship is one that's directly connected to people who aren't behind bars. After all, “We're all in this together,” right?

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So, I write this message in a bottle, hoping to paint a picture of the current reality. And secondly, to send an SOS to the folks in juvenile hall. You know, the ones society has failed the most.

Just trying to reiterate that the people who are the closest to the problem are usually the most informed as to how the problem can be solved.

We're in month four of the known international spread of COVID-19, and here in the United States, specifically in California, it's revealing just how sick our social systems are. But that's not new to a certain segment of the population.

We need you. We've failed you. But in order for us to not fail anyone else, we need you to tell us your stories. We need to honor your experiences and put pressure on those in power.

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It won't end the immediate threat posed by the pandemic, but it will assist in making sure that this sick system doesn't continue to fail young people of color when things are “back to normal.”