A Heartfelt Appeal on Behalf of Incarcerated Youth During Pandemic

Illustration by Christine Ongjoco

David Domenici has made it his life’s work to ensure that incarcerated youth are assured a quality education. After helping to turn around the education system associated with Washington, D.C.’s juvenile justice system, he founded the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings. The organization operates schools in the New Orleans detention center and adult jail, assists in the educational transition of youth coming home, partners with systems around the country to improve education in facilities. 

He is extremely worried about what will happen to the youth his organization serves every day, along with the educators who connect with them inside, during the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

We present his words, in an email to colleagues, unchanged and with his permission. 

Dear Friends,

This is a difficult email to write.

In my emails I generally try to remind you of the challenges that incarcerated students face, highlight the truly remarkable achievements that many make in overcoming these barriers – with the guidance and love of teachers and custodial staff who care for them – and offer ways for you to support them, often by advocating for policy changes.

I will do my best to meet those objectives today, as well. But it is not going to be easy for me to write, or for you to read.

The Challenge

Our students are terrified. Many believe they are going to die. They are highly at risk of exposure to COVID-19, especially teenage students held in large adult jails.

My fourteen-year-old twins are scared, and they are home with my Cheryl and me. Thousands of children about their age are locked in juvenile detention centers and adult jails around the country right now; nearly all visitation has been canceled.

Students are alone; they see the same news we do, and they fear for their lives. Each day that passes increases the trauma, risk, real hurt and long-term mental health scars they will endure long after COVID-19 has passed. The majority of these students are held for nonviolent offenses. Those in pre-trial detention settings haven’t yet had a trial or been adjudicated.

Yet they are held in our country’s least sanitary and most dangerous institutions. Institutions that simply are not designed to support individuals facing the ravages of a COVID-19 infection.

Addressing the Challenge

Thousands of adults are going to work each day in juvenile detention centers and adult jails. This is always hard work, but right now it is overwhelming, chilling.

As my dear colleague Christy walked through the jail in New Orleans this past weekend, getting ready for us to start teaching classes this week, children cried out to her asking her to stay with them, to care for them, to not leave them alone over the weekend.

Across the country education and secure care teams meet and plan, and then meet and re-plan how to try and keep educating students in the midst of this. The logistics are painstakingly difficult – keeping students safe, maintaining social distancing, organizing how students and staff move about, testing out technology. Each move, each request for a staff person to work a shift or teach a class, or pass out papers or check out a set of computers, is considered in light of what’s the right and moral thing to do, what’s the safe and careful thing to do, what’s the giving thing to do. Then you step back and ask, what do we do when a student or a staff person tests positive? And you plan for that.

We are supporting this work across the country by delivering engaging, relevant and ready-to-use curriculum to schools and facilities that will work for students even in the face of staff shortages and limited technology access.

Institutions that have refused to develop the tools and systems to use the Internet to support education suddenly are scrambling to make up for years of inaction, and we are doing all we can to support rapid transitions to blended and remote teaching and learning.

I work with and know school leaders, teachers, facility leaders and line staff who are committed to doing all they can to ensure that students who are confined are able to receive an education on par with their non-incarcerated peers during this time. This is my life’s work. I salute and support each of them. And I hope you do as well.

What You Can Do

There are two immediate action steps you can take, one at the policy level, and one at a personal level.

Policy action steps: Nearly all juveniles held pretrial in an adult jail or juvenile detention center should be released. No amount of heroism on the part of teachers and secure care staff can substitute for a policy solution that considers these young people as fully human and worthy of protection, grounded by a commitment to keeping people safe. That policy would call for nearly all confined juveniles to go home and for the adults who are currently caring for them inside of facilities to do so, as well. We are not per se a youth advocacy organization, but our partners at the National Juvenile Justice Network and the Campaign for Youth Justice are. I urge you to work locally to support efforts to release immediately the vast majority of young people held in confinement.

Personal action steps: Right now children and teens held in confinement need to know they are not alone, that we care for them. We are starting a month-long notecard and letter-writing campaign. If you are willing to sign up, we will match you with a group of students who are held in confinement. We are asking that you pull together a team of people who will commit to making a postcard or writing a brief letter to an incarcerated student at least one time per week for the next four weeks. We will provide your ‘team’ with the first names of a class of students. Using some basic technology tools, you can share a handwritten card or letter with a student. We will do our best to see that the card or letter gets to our contacts inside of a facility and is shared with a student. This is a great way for a family or group of families to pull together to show a student you care. Sign up HERE to join our letter-writing campaign. You will hear back from us with details.

Thank you for reading, for considering young people who too often are forgotten and overlooked.

COVID-19 demands that each of us be safe, careful and giving-


David Domenici is the founder of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings.

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