March 19, 2020

The Honorable Tom Wolf, Governor
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
508 Main Capital Building
Harrisburg, PA 17120

Dear Governor Wolf, 

On behalf of The Village of Arts & Humanities, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), Juvenile Law Center, Youth United for Change (YUC), and the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP) we are writing to share our concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated youth.

As states across the country undertake steps to stop the spread of COVID-19–closing schools, canceling events, and shifting to supporting children in their homes and communities–one group of young people is being left behind: the nearly 50,000 youth in custody in the United States.

Research by health care experts shows that incarcerated populations are most at risk during a public health crisis. COVID-19 spread quickly in enclosed spaces such as cruise ships and nursing homes, and it similarly will spread in detention centers, prisons, and jails. Contagious viruses such as COVID-19 spread much faster in detention centers and prisons as incarcerated youth are in close quarters and sometimes in unsanitary conditions.

Behind bars, youth are not able to participate in proactive measures to keep themselves safe, such as social distancing, frequently washing hands, or staying in sanitized spaces. Infection control is a challenge in these situations as incarcerated youth are often in large congregate and communal settings. Even if youth are in individual cells, ventilation is often inadequate. When traveling to and from court, hearings or legal appointments, it is harder for a youth to stop the spread of a virus while handcuffed or shackled. As such, when youth are released, they should not be handcuffed or shackled.

While some jurisdictions have canceled visitation as a response, we believe that this is not a time for youth to be separated from their support systems. This will only exacerbate mental health issues and further isolate youth. In addition, youth detention and correctional facilities likely are ill-equipped to meet the medical needs of youth if a COVID-19 outbreak inside the facility should occur. Youth will not have many options to stay away from other youth if they become ill and there are limited infirmary beds. If staff become ill, it will be difficult to provide care and support to youth and, if lockdowns are utilized, that will only intensify virus infection rates.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect youth, we urge you to publicly share your emergency plan for addressing the virus in the juvenile justice system and in any jail or prison that incarcerates youth, including the adoption of these measures to protect youth under justice system supervision:

1. Immediately halting new admissions to juvenile detention and correctional facilities and initiating the removal of youth from juvenile detention and correctional facilities by:
a. Examining all pre- and post-adjudication release processes and mechanisms and begin employing these as quickly as possible;
b. Removing youth who have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (cough, fever, shortness of breath); chronic illnesses, such as asthma or diabetes; other serious illnesses; or are in need of medical care;
c. Address the immediate health crisis by ensuring that no youth are in detention or incarceration for youth unless a determination is made that a youth is a substantial safety risk to others and no community-based alternative can address the safety risk.

2. While youth are awaiting release or in the rare case where a determination is made that immediate release is not an option:
a. Prohibit the use of solitary confinement, seclusion, exclusion or any type of isolation as a containment measure;
b. Provide youth-friendly and accessible written and verbal communications to youth about COVID-19, access to medical care, and community based supports;
c. Ensure continued access to education;
d. Ensure access to legal counsel through teleconferencing;
e. Ensure access to family contacts and support networks by guaranteeing free unlimited phone calls and increased video conferencing opportunities for all youth.

3. When youth are released from custody:
a. Create a comprehensive individualized transition plans to ensure that:
i. They have a place to live;
ii. Their basic needs are met;
iii. They receive immediate and adequate medical care;
iv. They have immediate access to Medicaid;
v. They are connected to appropriate community-based programming.
b. During transport:
i. Communication with family members or support network members is consistent;
ii. Those responsible for transport comply with all CDC and other Health Department guidelines concerning transportation;
iii. Youth are not handcuffed or shackled during transport.

4. For youth on probation, suspend all probation requirements and penalties, and specifically:
a. Eliminate incarceration as an option for technical violations of probation;
b. Allow youth to travel and access medical care, stay isolated when necessary, and take care of themselves and their loved ones;
c. Eliminate requirements for in-person meetings with their probation officers;
d. Place a moratorium on all requirements to attend and pay for court and Probation- ordered programs, community service and labor.

5. Address the economic instability caused by COVID-19 by creating an immediate moratorium on the assessment and collection of all fines and fees in the juvenile legal system for the duration of the public health and economic crisis.

If you have additional questions or need more information, you can reach us by email at or by phone at 215-868-2125.

Thank you for your time and consideration. We look forward to hearing from you.


The Village of Arts & Humanities, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), Juvenile Law Center, Youth Art and Self-empowerment (YASP), and Youth United for Change (YUC).

Back to News and Stories