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Virginia Juvenile Correctional Facility Overwhelmed By Coronavirus

A satellite view of the Bon Air facility near Richmond, Va.
Google Earth / Screenshot by NPR
A satellite view of the Bon Air facility near Richmond, Va.

Advocates are demanding state officials in Virginia release as many youth as safely possible from a juvenile detention facility after an outbreak of the coronavirus.

Officials announced 25 young people held in state custody have tested positive for COVID-19. That amounts to about one-eighth of the population at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center, outside Richmond.

Nationwide, just over 100 incarcerated children have tested positive for the virus, according to an analysis by The Sentencing Project, a non-profit in Washington D.C. In addition to the outbreak in Virginia, Louisiana's Office of Juvenile Justice reports 27 positive cases spread throughout several facilities. But the numbers are likely much higher, Josh Rovner with The Sentencing Project told WVTF, because most states are not reporting the information.

In Virginia, officials began more widespread testing at the Bon Air facility in early April after one resident tested positive. Residents there are between 14 and 20 years old.

A third of them were tested and 25 were found to be positive. Of those, 21 had no symptoms. The other four had symptoms that were "no more severe than a cold or flu." As of Saturday, all but eight residents have been released from medical isolation.

The numbers shocked Valerie Slater with the advocacy organization RISE for Youth. "My heart actually just kind of dropped into my stomach," said Slater. "I just can't even tell you how sad I am right for all of those families of all of the children there."

One of those residents is Arjanae Avula's younger brother. Avula is worried for his physical and mental health. He's 18 and has asthma. She last spoke to him one week ago for a few minutes. "He seems... kind of out of it, frustrated, a little bit depressed," she said, adding that he's normally chatty.

He used to have lessons, a group anger management class, and time to hang out in a common area. Now he said he's held alone for 23 hours a day. That matches accounts from others with family at Bon Air.

Valerie Boykin, the facility's director, said that after the first resident tested positive officials followed recommendations from the Virginia Department of Health and quarantined all residents.

"They do have their educational materials, their therapists are still meeting with them," Boykin said. "It's not an ideal situation for any of us, including them." She added that the quarantine is expected to be relaxed this week after cleaning crews sanitize open spaces.

Family members and advocates want Virginia's Department of Juvenile Justice to review each child's case, and to transfer everyone home that they safely can. Boykin said since mid-March they've released 14 youth, with ten more scheduled soon.

For those who remain at the facility, advocates continue to push for ongoing professional counseling and more frequent communication with families.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a freelance reporter and producer based in Richmond, Virginia. Although she's a native Virginian, she's most recently worked for public radio in Boston. There, she helped produce stories about higher education, including a nationally-airing series on the German university system. In addition to working for WGBH in Boston, she's worked at WAMU in Washington D.C. She graduated from Virginia Tech with degrees in Journalism and Political Science.

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