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Manson under the microscope as Connecticut contemplates the future of youth incarceration

Behind bars
hoozone/Getty Images/
Behind bars

In Connecticut, boys under 18 awaiting trial on serious felony charges are sent to a high-security prison in Cheshire called the Manson Youth Institution. The federal government recently found that the kids held there are subject to unconstitutional treatment and violations of their civil rights to education.

In a report released in December, federal investigators cited Manson’s isolation practices, inadequate mental health services and inadequate special education services for children with disabilities as “reason cause” for violations of the Eighth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“Children in adult correctional facilities do not forfeit their constitutional and federal rights,” said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. “Our investigation uncovered systemic evidence that children are deprived of the mental health and special education services they need to become productive, successful adults.”

According to the state Department of Correction, 39 boys are awaiting sentencing at Manson.

“From a mental health and a historical perspective, all of these kids have significant support needs, rehabilitative needs [and] mental health treatment needs,” said Sarah Eagan, Connecticut’s child advocate.

Multiple audits done by Eagan and the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate, coupled with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division findings, suggest that the care of children at Manson goes against the state’s intended goal of rehabilitating kids in the justice system.

Eagan found in 2019 that almost all of Manson’s youth were diagnosed at one point with anxiety disorder, ADHD and other mental health issues. Most got little to no treatment. In terms of education, most of the minors were assessed at a fourth, fifth or sixth grade learning level. The prison’s isolation practices resulted in them not getting regular classroom instruction, the report concluded.

Both adults and kids are held at Manson, but the children are housed in a separate wing. So for Eagan, these children are serving time in an adult prison, rather than being treated in an environment of rehabilitation.

“When we think about the work and the intervention that these children really need -- from trauma-based supports to clinical intervention to substance use treatment -- that system is not set up to provide that at the level that those children need,” Eagan said.

A follow-up audit from Eagan’s office to the January 2019 report also found that kids were often isolated in their cells for harmful periods of time, but correction officers say the conditions for pretrial youth are being exaggerated.

“It did not happen to the extent that they try to portray it to be, but no, it does not happen anymore,” said Aaron Lichwalla, who works at Manson and is part of AFSCME Council 387, a union that represents correction officers.

Lichwalla said changes were made to the protocols for locking children alone in cells after the Office of the Child Advocate began investigating the Manson Youth Institution. He said that individual behavior management plans were created.

“We are no longer putting juveniles in isolation, restrictive housing, or placing them in designated jumpsuits when they misbehave or get in trouble for things like fighting,” Lichwalla said.

Even with those changes, policymakers in Connecticut want to transfer these pretrial youth out of Manson.

State officials may send them to a juvenile correctional facility it closed in 2018. That’s where incarcerated children who got in trouble for crimes not serious enough to land them in Manson were sent. The state said thenthat the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) in Middletown failed to rehabilitate youth.

A law enacted in 2021 required the state’s Judicial Branch to create an implementation plan to “securely house” minors in their custody. A working group within the state Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division was tasked with making a recommendation.

“In order for the Judicial Branch to implement best practices to meet the needs of the transferred juvenile population, it is imperative that the location to securely house the population has adequate space,” working group members wrote in the plan.

“Anything less is a disservice to all detained juveniles, does not support future youth success, and is not in the interest of public safety,” the plan says. “In addition, inadequate space will lead to a number of operational and programming problems, which could result in legal interventions against the State due to the conditions of confinement.”

The working group’s consensus recommendation was to use the abandoned space in Middletown.

Lichwalla does not support moving pretrial youth back to CJTS. He believes there’s room at Manson to facilitate the programming and housing needs of the children.

“We have 75 acres here at Manson Youth,” Lichwalla said. “We have over 30 classrooms already at our disposal to improve on. We can create incentivized programs so that the juveniles can be inspired by what the 18-year-olds may be doing with their time.”

He also recommends that the state hire an extra mental health professional on each unit for every shift. Brian Larson, a correction officer who works with Lichwalla, also believes transferring pretrial youth out of Manson is a mistake.

“You’re talking about taking high-level crimes with high bonds with serious implications, serious repercussions and setting the tone for the youth out there to say, ‘You can run wild, because the most you’re going to have to do is go to day camp,’” Larson said.

But for Christina Quaranta, executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance, it’s not about letting kids run amok.

“We’re asking for kids to get the services that they need, help that they need, and we are thinking that as kids get the services and help that they need, conditions would improve and the correction officers would have a safer place to go to work, instead of everybody feeling unsafe in this space,” Quaranta said.

Quaranta’s alliance helps kids who have been sent to places like Manson get a say in prison policy. The group actually advised the working group from the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division as it crafted the implementation plan. Quaranta said she strongly opposes sending any more incarcerated youth to CJTS, but she said she had no other choice but to endorse the plan for transferring Manson’s pretrial youth to CJTS.

“If the only two choices that the state of Connecticut is presenting me is leaving young people inside the Department of Correction, where they are subject to torture and other awful conditions, or moving them inside of a shuttered youth prison, which one would you pick?” Quaranta said.

CJTS did close, after all, following a 2015 report from the Office of the Child Advocate. It found that children were subjected to illegal isolation and physical restraint. Both Quaranta and Eagan, the child advocate, agree that the state places too much emphasis on where these kids are locked up, instead of their rehabilitation.

“I think we have to focus on the model of intervention and what that’s going to take to implement [it] more than we’re focusing on what building that’s going to take place in,” Eagan said.

State lawmakers are expected to consider moving kids awaiting trial out of Manson this legislative session. Meanwhile, the state continues mediation efforts with the DOJ in response to its report on Manson. The Department of Correction declined to comment for this story and directed questions to the office of the state attorney general.

“We are committed to working cooperatively with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice on this serious matter,” said David Bednarz, a spokesperson Gov. Ned Lamont. “We have already taken steps, pursuant to state law signed by Gov. Lamont, to address issues at Manson Youth Institution and are actively participating in ongoing state-level policy discussions to serve the needs of these youth.”

Lamont’s office didn’t offer details on its talks with federal investigators, nor did the attorney general’s office. The federal Department of Justice can sue the state of Connecticut 49 days after it closes an investigation, like the one completed on Manson in December. Connecticut’s attorney general would defend the state in federal court. However, if talks continue, the federal government can keep negotiating with the state of Connecticut on Day 50 and beyond.

Frankie Graziano is the host of The Wheelhouse, focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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