While incarcerated public figures like Michael Cohen and Tekashi 6ix9ine are afforded the privilege of early release because of the threat of COVID-19, family members of children who are incarcerated are forced to wonder why their kids, many of whom are even’t even old enough to drink or vote yet, aren’t allowed the same.
In Louisiana, for example, the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) boasts a commitment to promoting “a safe environment for our youth, families, and communities.” But three mothers whose children have release dates less than a year away and were denied early release during the pandemic, describe instances of solitary confinement, inadequate healthcare and cuts to mental health services for their kids, and how their own wellbeing is impacted by stress from lack of communication by the facilities.
In an effort to keep their children safe during the pandemic, these mothers, along with the O’Melveny & Myers law firm, the Promise of Justice Initiative, the Juvenile Law Center, and the Law Office of John Adcock, filed a lawsuit on behalf of all youths in OJJ’s four secure care facilities for child endangerment in May. (So far, 77 employees and 29 children at these facilities tested positive for coronavirus, according to OJJ.) Though the lawsuit suffered a setback in July when a federal judge commended OJJ and blocked the request to release or furlough children who can be safely returned to their homes, these mothers continue to call on the state to implement new protocols to keep their kids safe. Here, in their own words, they detail what this summer has been like for their families.
The Mother With Stress-Induced Panic Attacks
Before COVID-19, I only got to see my son once at the facility he’s in because it’s a five-hour drive away. And since all this started, I got to Zoom with him maybe seven times. That’s as good as it gets as far as seeing him. I talk to him on the phone as much as I can, but the calls are expensive. I’m constantly adding money to the phone card. I give the state $147 a month for the phone. He was calling every day, but I can’t afford it, so we had to cut it back.
For a while there, I don’t know, it was just scary. There’s no other word to describe what happened when the pandemic began other than “chaos.” And then he was transferred to another facility and I wasn’t able to get a hold of him or know what was going on and why he was being quarantined away from other people because of the move.
He also has health problems with his kidneys, and trying to get answers from these people at the facility is like trying to pull teeth. They treat you like you don’t have a right to know.
He didn’t test positive for coronavirus, but I found out about him going to the children’s hospital for a checkup with his kidneys after the fact because I got an alert about him going to the doctor on my phone through one of the apps. I called the children’s hospital because OJJ wouldn’t give me no information other than that he was there. After a few days we finally found out which hospital he was at and that they were keeping him away from everybody because he had gone for a checkup with his kidneys.
I don’t know how, but he wound up having to go back to the hospital for stitches and they quarantined him longer. He was in quarantine well over two weeks. He said he was in a separate cell-like block, like a brick room. He’s sick right now with some kind of bacteria, but I didn’t find out ‘til he told me.
I feel helpless. Nobody ever has answers. Your child is just another number. You sit there for days on end, sick to your stomach, not knowing. It’s a waiting game. It’s a horrible, horrible feeling. They don’t care. It’s not like I’m a stranger or just a friend wanting to get information. I’m his mother. Out of all the adults there, no one ever seems to have an answer. How many medical charts does my child have? N
o one’s ever got an answer. I told the counselor that the other day. And she’s like, “Well, I understand.” They say they do, but they don’t.
I don’t condone him getting in trouble at school or the choices he made hanging out with the wrong crowd or anything, but at the same time, he was going through health issues. I need to know what’s going on with him now.
All I want to do is wrap my arms around him. Gosh, I hardly sleep anymore. I walk around with anxiety non-stop. I have panic attacks all the time from the stress. I don’t do anything anymore. I’ve lost interest in pretty much everything. I just go to work and I stay home. I don’t do nothing. I don’t think people fully get it unless they’re going through it.
I talk to my mom and I’ve got a cousin I talk to. There’s one lady down the street that I speak to all the time. They’re pretty much the few people I confide in. And there are a few other moms I have met along the way, but I haven’t really got to have much contact with them because work schedules and everything. It’s a struggle. If there was a therapeutic group of some kind for the parents to talk about what they’re dealing with, I think it would help.
With the lawsuit, I just want to help one, five, however many kids. I feel for any parent that’s going through this. Being turned away and not being able to do anything with or for your child because they don’t let you, it’s not a good feeling.
The Mother Who’s Nervous For Her Son’s Return
When my son was younger, he kept to himself but was very, very loving and affectionate. When my ex-husband and I divorced, he was told, “You’re the man of the house.” I think that probably caused some issues with his personality where he thought he always had to be the strong one of the bunch. He’s going to tell you exactly what he thinks, but he’s very, very protective of my feelings. He doesn’t like to tell me anything that might upset me. He’s not the same little boy I had when he left a few years ago.
I talk to him every day, multiple times a day. Every seven to nine days, we put $40 on the phone account. It costs maybe $500 a month for the family to talk to him. That’s the only thing that he has. That keeps him going. And when I talk to my son, we pass on messages for other kids and their parents who can’t afford the phone calls.
I haven’t seen him since March 15. That’s the longest in my whole entire life I went without seeing my child. Before COVID-19, I’d see him every weekend, and he was also home on furlough once a month.
Not seeing him for so long is frustrating, hurtful. I don’t get to hug him. I get Zoom calls once a week but it’s not the same as being able to at least see him, touch him, hug him. It’s heartbreaking, to be honest.
Since he’s been stuck inside because of COVID-19—I hate to say about my child—but he’s definitely a bit more rebellious now. He’s like, “What’s the point? I don’t have anything. I can’t change my release date. I can’t go on furloughs. You can’t come visit. What are they gonna take away from me? There’s nothing positive that we get anymore.” At one point, he got very depressed and withdrawn from everybody. It’s frustrating to me ’cause that’s not how he was.
I can hear it in his voice. There are times he broke down and cried, which he doesn’t do because he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings or make me upset. Rehabilitation for children is supposed to include transition to the home. With him not being home for almost six months now, that sense of normalcy was yanked away from him.
I’m gonna cry. I’m sorry. As a mom, I feel guilty because it’s my job to protect him. It’s my job to try to fix things. As a kid, if they fall down or something, you always pick them back up and you try to help them. They get in trouble, you try to guide them and help them in the right direction. At this point, I can’t do any of that.
If I take my other kids on a trip or something, I feel very guilty because he’s there and he can’t do anything. I’ve noticed that whenever we go do something, like when we took a trip to the beach, he calls more than he would if we were home. I think that’s because he’s trying to be a part of it so badly. And he can’t. And that makes the guilt on my end even worse.
It’s been nerve-wracking and stressful. I don’t know what’s going on inside the facility. I know he’s not telling me everything. I don’t like not having any control of whether my child is sick and not knowing for sure. If he doesn’t call one day, then I have very well been known to send emails and say, “Could you please let me know if my child’s OK?”
Because I can’t see him, I’ve been more depressed than I was previously. My husband will tell you that I’m not the same happy-go-lucky person I was five years ago. It has definitely affected my health and well-being. God is the one that gives me the strength, and my husband has been my rock. He’s the one who holds me when I’m crying and reminds me that it’s almost over. One of the moms involved in the lawsuit has definitely been a very big support, and she checks on me quite frequently. Those are the things that keep me going.
I have been fighting with Louisiana through a lot of juvenile justice issues for years. The lawsuit just gave us a chance for the kids to have a chance for their voices to be heard. I spent lots of time away from work trying to help change laws. I don’t believe the juvenile justice system has any idea of what it is like to rehabilitate a child. All they technically do is punish the children. Once a child’s rehabilitated, they should be able to come home. I know we have re-offenders, but you can’t punish every single child the same exact way.
The judge eventually approved him for early release weeks before his sentence was over. At first, OJJ blocked the judge’s approval, but then they said they could let my son out 14 days early, so of course we said yes. Now we’re all excited but scared at the same time because we normally don’t win very many of these fights. He hasn’t been home in years and I’m nervous he’s not the same child, but I’m glad he’ll be home.
The Mother Who Can’t Get Any Answers
There’s so much going on with OJJ. It’s just so disgusting. My kid was in solitary confinement or what they call “behavior intervention.” The kids are literally in their cell the whole day except for 15 minutes.
Until recently, he was doing really, really well. He was completing programs, he got his GED, he was taking college classes. He did so well that it got to a point to where OJJ even recommended that he be released and that keeping him in their custody would be punitive. The judge’s response was, well, do all the programs again and finish your sentence.
But right before the pandemic started, a new judge said if he gave him three good months, he could be released early. I told my son, “I want you to do really well. I know that you can do this.” My whole process was, “Oh God, this is going to make this really difficult.” ‘Cause in the midst of all of this, he does not have anything to do. He’s manic bipolar depressive and he was feeling very hopeless. So I told the facility that he’s going to get into a depression and he’s going to just give up and he’s going to do something stupid. I started telling OJJ that I really needed to make sure that he had his mental health services. But our cries went unheard. They just kept telling us that they were short staffed.
Fast forward. He did something really stupid. I’m really emotional because my son was transferred to an adult jail and charged with adult charges. The first time I heard of him being transferred to the adult jail and being in solitary confinement was yesterday when the lady called. Mind you, this is after he had been in jail a week. But I don’t know why they put him in “behavior intervention” or solitary confinement. I don’t know what happened for them to do it. One of the moms I talk to—’cause a lot of us moms talk—said it was a riot and they looped them all in together.
I’ve talked to him once for about two minutes since they transferred him to adult jail. He said, “You have to get me out of here. I need you to get me out of here. I feel like I’m losing my mind. You got to help me.” I don’t know what else I can do. And when he felt physically sick, they wouldn’t test him. Never did get an answer on why they didn’t test him or wouldn’t.
No matter how much I say, “My son is declining mentally,” it’s not doing any good. Nobody’s listening. The only thing you can do is call, and then they probably don’t answer. One time, I called the facility and I was on hold for an hour and 30 minutes.
As a parent, I feel kind of neutered because you have no control. You can’t advocate for your child. The people that do have control, who are supposed to be taking care of your child, they don’t communicate with you and they don’t listen to you. I just try to tell my son that he will get through this. But I’m afraid of him getting hurt. They’re having riot after riot and they’re understaffed. That scares me more than anything.
This is going to sound so awful, but I have the OJJ number programmed in my phone and when I see the number pop up, I answer the phone like, “Oh my God, what’s wrong?” I have an autoimmune disease and I struggle with seizures and migraines, so stress is not good for me at all. I am just terrified that I’m going to get a phone call that something has happened to him. And even then, when will they call me? Because he’s been in a different jail for over a week and I just got a call yesterday.
I’m trying to get our lawyers to file something. That’s our only hope. With OJJ, it’s just impossible…they’re not doing what’s best for the kids. Our only hope is try and work through the legal system.
As an agency, even during this pandemic, you still need to provide the services that these children need. Other than that, you are doing them a great injustice and are putting everyone in danger. All across the country, you hear story after story of these adult criminals who are being let out because of COVID-19. Yet our children are unable to get the exact same consideration. I find that to be heartbreaking and really pathetic of the country. They can give that type of consideration to grown folks who made these decisions, but not to children? Children. That is what we as a society need to focus on. If COVID-19 is so dangerous for these adults, why is it not just as dangerous for the children?
If you want to help Louisiana families keep in touch with their loved ones during these times, donate to Families And Friends Of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children and specify if you’d like your donation to go toward phone payments in the “designation” field.