At least three staff members and four youth residents are confirmed to have COVID-19 at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, a state detention center whose current residents range from 13 to 18 years old. As a result, many of the youth are either quarantined in their housing units or, if they are confirmed to have the virus, isolated in their rooms.
When youth arrive at a detention center for the first time, or are believed to have had contact with someone who is infected, they are quarantined in a housing unit for up to 14 days.
Youth who test positive for COVID-19 then go into “medical isolation.”
“Medical isolation means that a person needs to stay physically separated from others,” Maryland Department of Juvenile Services spokesman Eric Solomon said in a written statement. “For youth, they remain in their room and have access to a bathroom with a shower. If they are well enough and if cleared by the medical director, they are also allowed to go outside.”
Solomon said medical isolation typically lasts for at least 10 days. While there, the youth may have access to a phone to call parents or lawyers, electronic games or a Nook for reading books.
According to Jenny Egan, chief attorney in the juvenile division for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore, which represents many clients at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, medical isolation is a painful experience for the children she represents.
“That child has been told that they are sick with what they have learned about to be a brutal and sometimes deadly disease, and then are locked in a cell 23 to 24 hours a day,” she said. “This is even more concerning for us in that the majority of our clients have a diagnosed mental illness and lots of them — some estimates are up to half — are cognitively limited.”
The number of people who have the virus fluctuates daily, and staff say they were tested or expect to be tested again this week, the third time since DJS began what was supposed to be a single round of “universal testing” a month ago.
Solomon said the agency does not release how many children are in medical isolation or quarantine.
Data obtained by WYPR shows that four of the facility’s 32 residents are in medical isolation. It’s unclear how many are in quarantine, but based on information provided by staff, it appears to be the majority of the residents.
The Baltimore detention center has an infirmary, but youth with COVID-19 are not sent there to protect others who are sick, Solomon said.
Instead, they stay in what Egan described as jail cells — small spaces “with cinderblock walls, a steel bed with a very thin mattress, a steel sink and toilet combo,” Egan said.
There’s a high, barred window on one side. On the other, a steel door with an opaque window faces into the detention center’s housing unit.
Inside the unit, there is no hand sanitizer or soap. Youth can ask DJS staff for soap when they need it.
Medical attention is scarce, Egan said.
“The doctor has ordered them to be checked on hourly, but one client that we had who had a medical order to say nurses should see him every hour was only seen twice a day,” she said.
Two or three times a day, the child would stand at the threshold of the room while a nurse, standing just outside, took his temperature.
At one point, Egan’s client began to cry, which caused him to cough. When he struggled to breathe, Egan said it was six minutes before the nurse arrived with an inhaler because the inhaler was not kept nearby.
“They've been not locking the doors, but leaving the door slightly ajar, but putting a guard outside, so the child still cannot leave the room,” Egan said.
Egan said the open door distinguishes medical isolation from solitary confinement, but only technically.
“This kind of solitary confinement will have long-term lasting effects on children, and we have no way of documenting or being able to tell how long or for what period of time children were locked in their cells and experiencing this kind of just torturous isolation,” she said.
Nick Moroney, director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent watchdog for the state’s juvenile detention centers, said that’s not a fair comparison.
“Is it distinguishable from some kind of solitary confinement or something like that? Yes, I think it is,” Moroney said.
He said the experience is not all that different from what someone might experience in a hospital or nursing home.
“Quarantining is not enough because if that person mixes even with the folks who they had been mixing with, there's obviously a great possibility of transmission,” Moroney said.
Moroney said he gives DJS credit for making children with COVID-19 as comfortable as possible given the difficult circumstances.
But Egan said DJS could do more to help the youth residents as they battle the disease. She shared an account from one child who says he is depressed from being in medical isolation. He misses his mom, brother and grandmother. He is afraid that he might not wake up, and that he might not see his mom again.