There are children in jail.

by Autumn Redcross

with Dolly Prabhu

Introduction and edits by William Lukas

May 20, 2020

Popular media journalists and militant abolitionists have framed the importance of releasing “high risk” vulnerable people from prison amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The messaging almost always centers the voices of incarcerated elders and adults with underlying medical conditions. But what about the voices of children and young people locked up behind bars?

As of May 18, there are over four hundred reported incarcerated youth across U.S. juvenile facilities who’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19. There are undoubtedly more cases of incarcerated children with COVID-19, since many young people are held alongside adults in local jails, ICE detention centers, and other facilities (there are over 40,000 youth confined in criminal justice-related facilities in this country). Additionally, reporting on accessible and accurate testing of child and adult prisoners remains unattainable as wardens, policymakers, and even health officials, act aloof during public hearings – falling back on arguments of limited testing kits, austerity measures, or simply “needing to know more about mass testing”, while simultaneously providing thousands of testing kits to family health centers and nursing homes.

In this piece, ALC Court Watch takes us to the darkest corners of children’s jail cells in Allegheny County – and the legislation, courtroom practices, and cultural mythologies that make caging children possible and commonplace. While working as a caseworker for a youth re-entry program in San Francisco, I was always taken aback by the interiors of the city’s youth detention center: the floor tiles, the furniture, the lighting, the prison guard’s panopticon desk which was set up to look like a teacher’s. It was unclear where I was – if I was in a school building classroom or in a prison unit. But this is exactly the purpose of incarcerating children: to normalize the State’s control and punishment. To conflate housing, education, and imprisonment as one. “To get them used to a lifetime in prison” a correctional officer casually said to me after I finished helping a 13-year-old with his homework.

We share this article with you as part of the eighth annual National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth and in conjunction with the ongoing fight to #FreeTheVulnerable. We celebrate Cyntoia Brown and all survivors of child imprisonment and the youth we have lost at the hands of the State. We honor youth activists helping us connect the dots between the school-to-prison pipeline and the white supremacists policing of social-distancing: Black and brown youth on the stoops of their homes are brutally beaten by cops, arrested and jailed, while groups of white young professionals picnicking are given facemasks by cops.

As more youth experience lethal toxic shock syndrome brought on by COVID-19, abolitionists are reminded that children are high risk too and that young people’s voices – and futures – must be incorporated in the movement to #FreeTheVulnerable and beyond.

There are children in jail.

As of today, May 19, there are sixteen youth – people ages 18 and under – detained at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). The ACJ was built in 1995 with an original occupation capacity of 1,850. However, recent statistics reflect an average daily population of 2,400 over the last three years. Since the state-sanctioned shut-down and subsequent March 16 order to the courts, the jail population has drastically reduced – yet the number of children detained there has largely remained the same. ACJ currently holds 1,686 people.

Children warehoused in adult jails and prisons is commonplace in Pennsylvania. Depending on the nature of the criminal charges, it is possible for minors to be tried as adults given the outcome of waivers and, or exclusions. A waiver occurs when a juvenile court judge transfers the case from juvenile to adult court. Waivers help determine the course of legal proceedings regarding the charges a child in Pennsylvania may face.

Waivers for cases involving teens are sometimes issued where there is a history of offenses, or when the current alleged offenses are particularly egregious. A ‘discretionary waiver’ is provided in the interest of the public. A ‘presumptive waiver’ is issued when there is the use of a deadly weapon and commits a serious offense. In that case, there is a presumption that the public will be better served with the minor facing adult criminal prosecution. Finally, ‘statutory exclusions’ are charges where a minor will always be charged as an adult.


In 1995, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed Act 33, determining that teenagers between ages 15 and 17, charged with particular felonies that met certain conditions, be charged in adult court. “Prior to Act 33, criminal homicide was the only charge ranking above infractions like traffic tickets that automatically pulled people younger than 18 into adult court,” as written in the Sentinal.

Despite the fact that state policy does not allow children in the same age group to vote, buy cigarettes, consume alcohol, enlist in the military, the law has determined that children are fit to undergo damning the measures of the court and penal sentencing. In 2010, the Supreme Court Ruling of Graham v. Florida established that young people’s brains “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility.” Yet, children are still held to the measure of the law put forth, adopted, and implemented for adults. According to the Sentinel, the criminal justice system is “holding them accountable for behavior that doesn’t actually reflect where they are in life.”

Act 33 was passed during the ‘90s culture wars, in which “progressive” and conservative pundits adopted and promoted John DiIulio’s “superpredator” theory. The anti-Black superpredator euphemism defined a generation of Black youth living in cities as the most dangerous than any group of children and teens that had existed before.

“The young thugs across this Commonwealth who have held people hostage in their homes and in their streets and in their neighborhoods will come to an end” stated Sen. Michael Fisher, on the state Senate floor in 1995. “Hopefully, it will be somewhat abated by the passage of this legislation,” he said, introducing the bill that became Act 33. Yet, the peak of youth crime had already occurred four years earlier. It has been falling ever since.

But the legacy of Act 33 continues to haunt our county jails and courts. 

“On any given day, dozens of children ages 14-17 are housed in adult jails in counties across Pennsylvania while facing charges in adult court. Most will see their cases dismissed or moved to juvenile proceedings, but not before they spend weeks, months, or even years locked up with adults,” the Sentinel reports.


Prison labor, roaches, strip searches and “the hole”

This has been the experience for youth currently in ACJ. Children in Pittsburgh’s downtown jail are separate from the adults. “They have their own pod,” explains Dolly Prabhu, a recent graduate of Pittsburgh Law School and legal intern for the Abolitionist Law Center. Dolly notes, “People assume that everyone who is a kid ends up at Shuman or something.” The Shuman Center is the juvenile detention center in Allegheny County. Dolly’s externship allowed her several hours visiting with the children at the ACJ.What she has seen and heard from her young clients is disturbing.

Jail pods are open floor plans which contain tables, chairs, and the Correction Officer’s (CO’s) bench. The single cells that the children are assigned to are cramped, sterile, and ugly little enclosures. There is the customary cot, a sink, and a steel toilet in each cell. And they are cold. Minors detained at ACJ report needing to clothe themselves in both of their issued uniforms and get under the covers to have some type of warmth.

Yet, they do not have normal blankets, pillows, or bed sheets – only suicide blankets and bedding furnish the room.

Certain children are designated as “cleaners,” on the unit. Although the cleaners may earn advantages, such as extra time in the game room, the teens may also be subjected to harsh discipline. “Cleaners” may be expected to clean excessively to meet the standard of expectation. At times they are addressed by their room numbers rather than their names. They are never paid in their role as a “cleaner.”

“I feel like it’s prison labor, and that they are exploiting the fact that they are children desperate for stimulation and acceptance”, Dolly explains.

Being called by their inmate numbers – and not their names – is another tragic aspect of the children’s time in jail. The food is said to be awful, which is only worsened by the CO’s laughter when serving particularly “gross” meals. Dolly was told that roaches (dead and alive) are sometimes found on their meal trays.

Strip searches and shakedowns are part of safety regulations at jails and prisons. Although these sanctioned searches of cell and property are designed to discover and remove contraband, the teens believe these strip searches and shakedowns are used to humiliate them. There are times when the CO’s have taken legal work from the youth, tossed their property and personal hygiene products around in the room. The CO’s are often crass in demeanor and use profanity and name-calling.

As a means of discipline, children at the ACJ are put into “the hole”, Dolly writes. When placed in solitary confinement, teens cannot be released until they have met with the sergeant within 7-10 business days. The meeting, between the youth and the sergeant, takes place somewhere on the pod. If the teen does not return from solitary within 10 days, “COs take all your stuff and throw it out,” as told by some teens at ACJ.

For adults in prison, solitary confinement imprisons the imprisoned. “Prisoners in [the hole]  are locked down at least 23 hours a day in cells as small as 80 square feet – the size of an average home bathroom.” The extreme isolation allows for only one hour out for recreation time in the “gym.

“The hole” is mentally taxing for adults and stands to exacerbate mental illness. Children confined like this, “get depressed, angry, and don’t know how to handle it,” says Dolly. The youth’s visits often do not pan out and they’re deprived of the use of the phone and are not allowed commissary. Dolly notes, “what often causes them to be thrown in ‘the hole’ results from boredom.”

Although there is a gym on the pod with a pull-up/bench press machine, and possibly a basketball hoop, the children are in school for five to six hours a day. But they are not allowed to be in school if they are in the hole, and they cannot play in the gym if they are not in school. Some teens report that they do not have access to their mental health care providers even after asking and many children do not get the medications that they are in need of. 

Freeing our youth in the fight to #FreeTheVulnerable

Observations of these conditions occurred pre-COVID-19. Since the shutdown, children like adults in ACJ are not allowed physical visitation of any kind and are no longer attending school. Children are potentially put into solitary confinement – under the guise of “quarantine”. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit sends in schoolwork packets that the children are expected to complete and send back, as reported at the Jail Oversight Committee meeting

How is community trauma perpetuated by the court’s incessant charging of children as adults? By the county jail’s heartless conditions and vicious practices? Can we imagine justice and creative alternatives for care of our young people – alternatives like rehabilitation, therapy, tutoring, community-based programs, wellness and social-emotional learning, arts and sports enrichments, career and college readiness projects – that go beyond carceral optics and hellish tools of confinement?

The words of anti-apartheid revolutionary and political prisoner Nelson Mandela remind us, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” There are children in jail and we fight for their rights in the movement to #FreeTheVulnerable.