As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the nation, hundreds of thousands of incarcerated individuals, including tens of thousands of youth, were trapped in highly contagious, congregate care correctional facilities that exponentially increased their risk of infection. Incarcerated youth were cut off from family and denied essential, often court-ordered programming because entry into facilities from the outside was sharply curtailed. To protect these incarcerated populations from the spread of COVID-19 as well as the loss of treatment, education, and other programming opportunities, advocates for youth filed litigation in several jurisdictions.
This Essay offers a snapshot of how youth plaintiffs fared in litigation that they brought to reduce population in these facilities or to modify and eliminate harmful institutional practices and policies during the COVID-19 pandemic. In most of these cases, relief was limited or nonexistent. This Essay examines these efforts and addresses the limitations of current constitutional jurisprudence to protect vulnerable populations during a public health emergency.