Corrections officers working with incarcerated minors at Manson Youth Facility said they had ideas that would address some of the concerns outlined in the federal Department of Justice report and preclude the need to remove unconvicted teens. towards a new therapeutic framework.
Corrections officers want better use of the prison’s 75-acre grounds, which could include sports fields for outdoor recreation and the use of outbuildings for job training programs, job placement programs outside and more staff, including teachers and mental health workers to implement the change.
But, while state Corrections Department Commissioner Angel Quiros was receptive, frontline staff were not included in conversations about the state’s response to the federal investigation that concluded. that the agency violates the rights of minors by overusing solitary confinement as a discipline and by failing to provide adequate education or adequate mental health programs.
“There are a lot of things we would like to see done,” said Aaron Lichwalla, correctional officer at Manson YI and vice president of AFSCME Local 387 representing DOC employees. “There are things we want to share with the administration of the establishment and above.”
What they don’t want is for the state to pass a proposed plan to move unconvicted juveniles to a therapeutic setting at the old Connecticut Juvenile Training School. It would cost $22 million to renovate the Ministry of Children and Families facility in Middletown, which has been closed for nearly four years.
“It’s a big gamble that could have terrible results,” Lichwalla said.
“They’re offering to spend $22 million on something that failed the first time around,” said Brian Larson, another corrections officer at Manson YI. “We have so many properties on our land. Why not support a program that is already working to thrive? »
The DOJ’s report on its investigation released Dec. 21 details grim conditions in juvenile prison, including the prolonged use of solitary confinement to punish teens for mean-spirited behavior and few educational opportunities, especially for children. adolescents with disabilities.
A letter to Gov. Ned Lamont that accompanied the report gave the state 49 days to craft a response that would rectify conditions at the prison that houses about 40 juveniles and 275 young adult men between the ages of 18 and 22. The state could face a lawsuit if the changes were not implemented, the letter said.
The federal investigation was prompted by an earlier report released by state children’s attorney Sarah Eagan that drew attention to the use of segregation for teens, the lack of educational programs and the lack mental health treatment.
The federal report described similar issues, including dramatic examples of teens placed in segregation for teenage behaviors that exacerbated pre-existing mental health issues that are unresolved, the lack of special education for children suffering diagnosed disabilities and lack of good mental health. assessments and treatment for more than two-thirds of minors.
The state is negotiating with the DOJ to resolve the issues, officials said.
“We are focused on working with the Department of Justice and the Office of the Children’s Advocate,” said agency spokeswoman Ashley Turner. “However, we cannot discuss the letter from the US DOJ or the ongoing mediation regarding the Manson Youth facility. While the state is mediating with the US DOJ on this matter, the attorneys representing us in the mediation request that discussions regarding mediation remain confidential.
Lichwalla Larson and Sean Howard, president of AFSCME Local 387, say the federal investigation found flaws that were corrected long before the DOJ report was released.
“All custody issues have been resolved,” Lichwalla said. “We no longer put them in restrictive housing. If they are disciplined, they can still have recreation time, call home, participate in religious programs and the like.
There are issues that “should have been addressed yesterday,” Lichwalla said, referring to the lack of adequate mental health assessments and treatment. “If we could have four more mental health workers, they could do immediate assessments on the first and second shifts.”
More special education teachers — that’s a “no-brainer,” Lichwalla said. “Why don’t we hire more specialist teachers? ” he said.
Correctional officers play no role in education or mental health programs, Lichwalla said. But they have a daily relationship with the miners, Larson said. “Ninety percent of us are parents,” Larson said. “We have the life skills to deal with young people. When you interact with them, you are able to identify problems and ask them for help.
Instead of moving the teens to a place that needs updating and lacks the tools to keep them safe, Larson, Lichwalla and Howard want the state to invest in Manson YI so they can provide more vocational education that would allow young prisoners to learn a trade, they said.
The sprawling grounds could be used to teach landscaping, the barber certification program could be expanded, as could the auto shop that teaches how to fix cars, they said. “We could have a work release program and match them with jobs in the community,” Lichwalla said.
But an expansion of programs that include mental health treatment would require more funding, Howard said. “If the governor wants to change the system, we’re going to need staff,” he added. “You have to invest money to make this happen safely.”