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U.S. Department of Justice finds state's youth prison violates children’s civil rights

A hallway in Manson Youth Institution.

The U.S. Justice Department issued a report on Tuesday that found the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, Connecticut, is violating the rights of young people confined there. Manson is a high-security prison for teenagers and young adults up to the age of 21.

The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said an investigation revealed inadequate mental health services and special education instruction. Federal investigators say staff at Manson frequently subject young people to harmful periods of isolation, despite evidence that children are especially vulnerable to lasting damage from isolation.

The findings are similar those in a 2019 report released by State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, who represents the interests of the most vulnerable kids in Connecticut. Eagan said the latest Justice Department report requires the state and federal officials to agree on a sweeping plan for change.

“Given the magnitude and urgency of the Justice Department finding, what needs to be seen in any resolution agreement is remedies of equal proportion,” Eagan said. “[It] will ultimately necessitate a reformation in the way we work with incarcerated children.”

Eagan said the suggestions for reform in her 2019 report could not solve all the problems at the Manson Youth Institution, because issues in the juvenile justice system are so entrenched.

Republican lawmakers in Connecticut have proposed harsher adult sentences for kids to rectify what they believe is a spiking juvenile crime problem during the pandemic. That kind of change in sentencing requirements could lead to more kids ending up at Manson.

Mike Lawlor, a professor at the University of New Haven and a former top criminal justice official for the state, said this Department of Justice investigation shows that tougher sentencing that lands young offenders in the “deep end” of the adult prison system is not the way to go.

“The best idea is to find appropriate ways to provide services to these ‘deep-end’ kids in the juvenile system,” Lawlor said. “This can be done. It’s not easy. It’s complicated. It will cost money. It will cost more money to do it the wrong way, on the adult side.”

Lawlor said the state will have to act on the investigation, or a federal judge will force it to comply.

Officials at the Manson Youth Institution directed questions to Gov. Ned Lamont’s office.

David Bednarz, a spokesperson for Lamont’s office, said in a statement that the administration is reviewing the report. Bednarz said the state has already taken steps to address issues at the institution.

State Attorney General William Tong, who would represent Manson and the state if the U.S. attorney general decided to take legal action to force reform agreements, said in a statement: “Our office is reviewing the report’s findings and will work with the Department of Correction and Department of Justice to address the issues raised in the report.”

Matt Dwyer is a producer for Where We Live and a reporter and midday host for Connecticut Public's news department.
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Cassandra Basler is a radio reporter and editor at Connecticut Public. She has covered juvenile justice, the opioid crisis, immigration, social justice and inequity. You can find her reporting in New Haven and Fairfield counties. She previously worked at WSHU Public Radio and her work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Here & Now.