ACLU joins Free Our Youth, calls for release of incarcerated youth

The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia recently joined youth justice advocates across the country in supporting the Free our Youth campaign calling for the release of incarcerated young people amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its press release sent Thursday, the ACLU-WV states: “Prison is a harmful place for youth even in the best of times, but in a pandemic the situation only gets worse.”

The release states that correctional and rehabilitation facilities are overcrowded and unsanitary and workers and incarcerated individuals are unable to practice social distancing, leaving them highly susceptible to infection. It also encourages individuals to contact Gov. Jim Justice by phone or to send him a comment about the issue online at

“Tell the governor that prison is no place for children, especially not during a global pandemic,” the release states. “Tell him to halt all juvenile detentions during the outbreak and to free as many youth as possible to help prevent and control the spread of this deadly disease.”

Eli Baumwell, policy director for ACLU-WV, said the state should free young people who are incarcerated in healthcare-related facilities through the Department of Health and Human Resources as well as those incarcerated in jails through the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“Just as important as the youth population that exists in jail-like facilities through the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are those in facilities run through DHHR because a lot of juveniles also end up in those facilities through the juvenile justice process,” Baumwell said. “In a lot of ways, these are very similar to prisons. In a lot of cases, the youth are sent there by a judge and are confined there in close-quarters posing a very significant health risk.”

Baumwell said the state generally should be more careful and responsible when deciding whether to incarcerate young people, and risks are exacerbated during a pandemic.

“In normal times, we want to see fewer youth in these circumstances, but in a crisis like this, it is even more imperative that we’re not risking their lives and risking public health by keeping kids in these types of facilities,” he said.

Baumwell said about 4,000-5,000 young people normally are incarcerated or confined through the West Virginia DHHR and DCR systems. He said the ACLU-WV has reached out to facilities to determine a more precise and updated count but has not yet received a response.

Baumwell said the relaxation of various guidelines and practices in juvenile facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic are further endangering incarcerated individuals. He said some facilities have relaxed training requirements in order to be capable of replacing staff members who get sick.

“That’s really dangerous,” he said. “There are good reasons why stricter training is required for staff members who work with juveniles.”

One concern brought up by critics of the Free our Youth campaign is that many incarcerated young people do not have a family or home to return to, so releasing them would be more dangerous than keeping them confined. Baumwell said the state should evaluate the situation of each incarcerated individual separately to make decisions about such matters.

“We want individual assessment,” he said. “Not every kid who ends up in these facilities has a bad home environment. Even for those who may not have an ideal home environment, that does not mean we should put them in this incredibly high-risk situation and take away all authority from parents.”

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].