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How an activism group is working to protect incarcerated young people

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Posted at 12:23 PM, May 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-08 13:35:05-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- As the coronavirus continues to spread in the commonwealth, prisons, jails, and correctional facilities have been hit especially hard due to the close proximity of offenders.

Now, one local activism group is trying to solve that problem, especially for young people who are incarcerated.

"As we watched it ravaged through nursing homes we said to the department of juvenile justice and every other facility holding individuals in carceral states, these are spaces that are potential for outbreak," said Valerie Slater who is a lawyer and Executive Director for Rise for Youth, an activism organization dedicated to helping incarcerated young people.

Right now, Slater says she is particularly concerned for the youth at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Chesterfield. According to state officials, 29 juveniles and 10 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began.

"We're trying to get out every young person that has satisfied their requirement to the court, they have satisfied their treatment plans, and they have someplace safe within the community, even if it means we are helping to provide," said Slater.

Last month, a letter signed by eight commonwealth's attorneys - including Henrico's Shannon Taylor was sent to Brian Moran, the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security. In conjunction with Rise for Youth, those prosecutors asked that juveniles who don't pose a public safety threat be released from Bon Air to reduce the risk of infection.

Moran tells CBS 6 the state acted quickly to protect those inmates.

"We've also taken the extraordinary step of reviewing all of those kids that have indeterminate sentences. Those are sentences that juvenile corrections actually have authority to reduce those sentences and they have done that. They reviewed them and they've reduced the population by about 10 percent,” said Moran.

“The way to do that is for the Department of Juvenile Justice to work not only with judges and commonwealth attorneys, but with the community that has the resources to help make as many transitions as possible, possible,” Slater added.

Arjanae Avula who lives in Churchill has an 18-year-old brother currently inside Bon Air. She turned to Rise for Youth after hearing her brother's fears for his health.

“Yes, he did say, ‘what happens if I get? I have asthma! If I get it it's no good for me,’” said Avula.

The Department of Juvenile Justice website has a page for the latest information regarding their coronavirus situation at Bon Air and while the number of cases is declining, Slater says more should be done to reduce the size of the population at that facility.

"You have too many young people inside Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center and it has been part of the reason why that pandemic has an opportunity to spread as widely as it has. So, bring those numbers down, accept the hand of community because our hand is extended,” said Slater.

CBS 6 reached out Valerie Boykin, the Director of Bon Air, who declined to go on camera, but send us a statement that read:

"When DJJ had its first Bon Air resident test positive, and after consulting with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), the agency instituted a quarantine April 5th, to help understand the extent of the virus on the campus, and to prevent further spread. The following day, DJJ began screening residents twice a day, and any resident who had even a slightly elevated temperature (above 99 f.), an aggressive protocol still in place today.

Another recommendation from VDH involved limiting the number of staff and a quarantine of all Bon Air residents this and other social distancing measures, as well as providing all residents with multiple protective masks, are having the desired effect: there have been only two additional positive tests in the last two weeks. The quarantine has been relaxed as the number of positive tests drops."
Valerie Boykin

Watch Rob Desir's "Our RVA" reports every Wednesday on CBS 6 News at 4 p.m. If you know someone Rob should feature, email him at rdesir@wtvr.com

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