How I stopped in-person drug tests for youth during COVID in Alameda County

Chris Quiej is 18 years old, lives in Oakland, and is a 2020 Dream Beyond Bars Fellow

During the pandemic, the health guidance from officials has been clear: we are safer at home. That’s the advice for the elderly, students, people who work in offices…But for system-impacted youth? For us, it’s youth jails and prisons with poor ventilation; solitary confinement or crowded dorms and common areas; and policies that put us and our family in danger of contracting the virus.

Christopher Quiej

I’ve seen firsthand how stressful and dangerous this approach is, and I’ve also seen a different way, one that focuses on community-based support and building youth leaders. State legislators and the Governor can protect vulnerable kids throughout this crisis and beyond by releasing youth and connecting us to community-based organizations that prioritize our safety, our health, and our dreams.

Through the organization that I’m a part of, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), I was accepted into a fellowship program (Dream Beyond Bars) for formerly incarcerated youth leaders working to transform the youth injustice system in Alameda County. With CURYJ, I have people who understand me and who I can turn to for help. Because of their support, we changed an unsafe countywide policy and I was able to protect my family from unnecessary exposure to the coronavirus.

In early March, I completed my program and graduated from Camp Sweeney (Alameda County’s youth prison) and went home to shelter-in-place restrictions. The courts were closed, but probation required me to travel out of the city, every three days, for a check-in and drug-test. Because I don’t have reliable transportation and I needed to have a guardian sign the paperwork, my elderly grandmother would come with me to the facility, putting her health at risk and exposing my whole family to the virus multiple times a week. I raised concerns that these check-ins were making my family less safe, but was told if I didn’t comply I would be re-incarcerated or sent to juvenile hall — where it is so stuffy you feel like you can’t breathe.

Chris getting completing the Dream Beyond Bars fellowship with CURYJ staff

When probation continued to insist on the in-person trips, I wrote a letter to the Chief of Probation to advocate for myself and my family, and the other youth in my fellowship program started campaigning to end the policy for all youth.

Because of our efforts, probation ended the in-person check-ins and now more Alameda County young people can actually stay safer at home. While advocacy like this is critical to saving lives, it’s only one part of the support system organizations like CURYJ offer.

As a part of the fellowship, I got a life-coach who helps me reach my goals. Every Friday, we deliver bags of food, enough to feed a whole family, to over 40 vulnerable young people in Oakland. Youth can get a wifi hot-spot or cell phone to stay connected. And if you are struggling to find housing, they can help with that too. For many of us, being at CURYJ is the first time we have had mentors who teach us about our history, culture, and healing practices. We also meet-up at our garden every week; we wear masks, clean-up, and grow food for the community. We even have a whole banana tree that feeds anyone who needs it.

The kids growing up in my community are full of ambition. We just don’t always have access to opportunity or enough support and a lot of us are just trying to survive. But when you have your community supporting you, people who understand you, and will be there for you and help you get through, that makes all the difference.

Every time I talk with another system impacted youth I tell them about CURYJ because I want everyone to have access to the support and opportunities that I have had. This is the approach that young people need and have been calling for, it is time for our elected leaders to listen.

CURYJ unlocks the leadership of young people to dream beyond bars.