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The Miami Youth Academy houses up to 28 boys from 14 to 18 years old, who are sent there by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. In April 2020, their world was upended when the first case of COVID-19 was identified at the facility. Since then four students and six staff members, including the facility administrator, have been infected.

Students, who tested positive, were isolated in a private room for 14 days and all services including meals were provided according to social distancing and personal safety guidelines. They completed assignments, including these reflections on paper, and the work was scanned and sent by email to teachers. Students, who tested negative, learned in classrooms from teachers who joined them via Google Meet.

Here are reprinted stories about their experiences from their student newspaper Titan Tribune, which they produce in a journalism class run by Exchange for Change, a local nonprofit group that teaches writing classes in youth commitment and adult correctional facilities. Retired newspaper reporter Henry Unger has taught the class for nearly two years in collaboration with the academy and Miami-Dade County Public Schools. These stories were published in May 2020 in issue 7. Writers are identified by their initials to protect their identity.

Looking at Four Walls

By J.E.

It was really boring because all you’re doing is looking at four walls every day and thinking about life.  I was feeling down because when I thought, I would think about my family most of the time.  I also thought about what I’ve done wrong in life and my future —  plans for when I go home. I spent time listening to music, writing in my journal, reading books and sleeping. As for having COVID-19, I really did not feel much, except for a bad chest pain. The virus was mostly like the flu, which was not a big deal for me. I was just trying not to spread it. But the virus is killing a lot of other people. Right now, I’m out of isolation and counting down my days before I get to leave. 

Down and Depressed

By S.H.

Being isolated I felt down and depressed, like I was going to lose it.  It was really boring. I managed by sleeping throughout the day.  I often thought about my family and their safety, due to the virus.  I tried to keep my head up, but this virus is too depressing. I already lost a great aunt due to the virus. Being isolated makes you think hard about whatever it is you are going through. 

Did Not Want to be One of Them

By A.R.

They had to quarantine me because I had a high fever. Then, they tested me for the coronavirus and I came out positive. I started crying because people were dying. But I did not want to be one of them.  After a few weeks I thought I might be OK because my symptoms went away. I am not sick any more and back in the classroom where I belong.  

Poem: Cough, Touch, Sneeze

By T.H.

Cough, touch, sneeze
I’m sick and have wobbly knees
Will I survive through the cold night?
Or will I go where there’s no light
In the dungeon I must go 
Stay away you must know 
For I’m sick 
Lord, have mercy on us

Source: Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Communications Office

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Students at Miami Youth Academy

The students at the Miami Youth Academy wrote these stories for their newspaper Titan Tribune, a collaborative effort by the facility, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Exchange for Change, a Miami-based non-profit group that supports writing programs in youth commitment and adult correctional facilities. The students work on the paper in a journalism class taught by retired journalism teacher Henry Unger. The writers are identified by their initials to protect their identities.