I think we can all agree that the past week has been tough for young people in Chicago.
In fact, the past two years — since the pandemic began in March 2020 — have been difficult for our young people. And while we all rightly debate what constitutes a safe learning atmosphere for our children, the young people who are always forgotten in these discussions are those behind bars.
Incarcerated children remain at high risk for exposure and infection from COVID-19 in youth prisons across the state as vaccination rates lag among staff and the prison population.
And while the new Chicago Teachers Union agreement says schools would halt in-person learning if 30% of school staff are absent due to COVID-19, at the same time young people in juvenile prisons are being forced to suffer confinement or solitary confinement if prisons are understaffed.
We need to make tough public health decisions to keep our children and ultimately our communities safe in the midst of a deadly virus. But this consideration must extend to all those affected, including incarcerated youth.
Young people in youth prisons suffer 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 cannot control when they can be vaccinated or vaccinated, or whether the adult guards they come into close contact with every day are fully vaccinated.
In fact, most Illinois prison staff still haven’t been beefed up as Omicron rolls out across the country and into state prisons. Only 7% of all Illinois Department of Corrections staff have received the COVID-19 reminder.
Young people’s lives are at risk as long as these harmful prisons remain open, and Illinois’ most marginalized communities bear the brunt of youth incarceration.
End the cycle of evil
The neglect, physical and emotional abuse and inadequate educational services to which young people are subjected while incarcerated, leaving them ill-prepared to adapt to life outside the prison system, further compound the trauma of youth prisons.
The State of Illinois must do better and prioritize investing in its young people rather than throwing them into inhuman prisons that stunt their growth and darken their future. We need to reclaim the resources currently being spent on a system we know is not working 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 Governor JB Pritzker, who has the power to end this cycle of evil now.
The atrocities of the youth incarceration system are well documented. Pritzker himself acknowledged the horrors of youth prisons, noting that our criminal justice system as it is “too punitive and ineffective to fulfill its purpose: to keep Illinois families safe.“
Yet Pritzker continues to push for a “transformation” of the youth justice system rather than a total overhaul. As the state’s top elected official, Pritzker has a responsibility to end the nightmare of youth incarceration by closing prisons and investing in a safe and prosperous future for our young people.
As we are forced to consider the harsh realities of economic hardship, health insecurities and an uncertain future this New Year, there is no reason to keep children locked into a system that inflicts immense trauma. To keep our communities safe and thriving, we need to treat children with care, not incarcerate them. 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.
Children want to be children and not see their future upset 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 lawyer and mother of four who was first incarcerated when she was 22 and pregnant.
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