Groups rally to release youth from Philly Juvenile Center in light of COVID-19 pandemic

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PHILADELPHIA —  A group of activists gathered in front of the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center Monday afternoon to advocate for the youth currently incarcerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those assembled called on city Mayor Jim Kenney, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, and local courts to halt admissions and institute a timely process to release those youths in detention. 

“Juvenile court judges, as well as Mayor Kenney and the DA’s office, have not yet taken the steps needed to expedite the release of all young people incarcerated or held in placements,” the Village of Arts & Humanities’ Michaela Pommells said. “It is vital to the health and well-being of our young people that the City return them to the care of their families and communities, rather than keep them behind bars. We call on our city officials to imagine these young people as their own children and respond ethically and responsibly.”  

“People are coming together to fight for what’s right,” added Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project organizer Dashaun Harden. “We call on the judges, Mayor Kenney and the District Attorney to release incarcerated youth now because it’s sad to see youth suffer in a facility where they are vulnerable to get a virus – knowing it can be their last days; we are basically failing our youth.”

As of May 15, there were 122 young people being held in the center as well as an additional 21 youths currently awaiting trial in adult prisons.

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Organizers played audio recordings of teenagers who were recently released. They described their fear when they learned that members of the staff had tested positive and a two-week lockdown was required.

“We couldn’t come out of our cells that much or interact with each other. It made me feel like a caged animal,” one recently released 16- year-old said. “Since I’ve been home, it’s been hard to sleep.”

Concern about the COVID-19 virus was evident at the rally itself. Many attendees who wanted to show up and have their voices heard participated by forming a parade of cars that continually honked their horns. Meanwhile everyone outside wore masks and some wore gloves, while Lysol wipes were used to clean the microphone. 

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier called in to the event and addressed the crowd by having someone hold a phone in front of the microphone. Additionally, Councilwoman Kendra Brooks attended in- person and spoke.

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“In juvenile detention facilities, social distancing looks a lot like solitary confinement. This kind of long-term isolation is not only deeply inhumane, but could have long-term effects on youth development,” she declared. “The safest and most ethical thing we can do for them and for our communities is to bring them home.”

This event was organized by the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP) and the Village of Arts & Humanities in coordination with a dozen other groups including the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Correspondent Nick Field covers Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @Nick_Field90.