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Plan to house youth at Connecticut Juvenile Training School site criticized

FILE, 2015, A room in the intake unit of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
FILE, 2015, A room in the intake unit of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School.

Prison reform advocates are criticizing a proposal to house incarcerated children at the former Connecticut Juvenile Training School building in Middletown, saying the plan will reverse years of work to improve treatment of juveniles in state custody.

A working group last week released its updated plan to implement a state law that requires the Judicial Branch to take over the care and custody of all children from the Department of Correction.

The group proposes moving youth to the former Juvenile Training School, or CJTS, a secure facility that was shuttered in 2018 after investigations showed inadequate care of children housed there. It would cost an estimated $24 million for renovations, and $33 million per year to operate the facility, which would offer 64 beds.

The plan would likely take at least a decade to put into full effect. In the next phase, the working group proposes conducting feasibility and design studies, expected to cost roughly $1 million and take up to two years.

Proponents say CJTS has sufficient space to prevent crowding and conflict, and to run vocational and educational programs. It also offers large outdoor and indoor recreational areas. Group members determined that there isn’t another surplus state property available that is large enough, or “anywhere near shovel ready,” according to their report.

“The use of any state surplus property will very likely require a greater investment of time, staff resources, and financing than the renovation of the former CJTS property,” the report reads.

The working group was composed of 35 members, including state prosecutors, a public defender and staff from the Judicial Branch, Department of Children and Families and Department of Correction.

Representatives of the Connecticut Justice Alliance also served on the panel. They were the only members not to support the recommendation. In a press release Friday, Christina Quaranta, the alliance's executive director, said the plan “demonstrates a complete disregard for the lives of these youth, reverses progress on youth legal reform, and wastes taxpayer money.”

“This plan does not represent an authentic change in the youth legal system like the legislation we worked so hard to pass intended,” Quaranta said. “We know that prisons — particularly isolating, large group settings — do not work to rehabilitate children.”

The history of the former juvenile training school building includes allegations of mistreatment of youth housed there. Investigations by the Office of the Child Advocate found deficiencies at the facility, including “inadequate suicide prevention, lack of appropriate support and training for staff, inadequate and harmful crisis management” and lack of transparency regarding outcomes and oversight, which were described in a 2015 report.

The same report found that staff used isolation unlawfully, both in response to mental health crises, and as a punitive sanction; and that kids with psychiatric needs were at times isolated for prolonged periods, in lieu of receiving treatment.

CJTS is also associated with a corruption scandal under the administration of former Republican Gov. John Rowland. State officials admitted to giving an unfair advantage to the contractor selected to build the facility in 1999 in exchange for personal benefits.

In 2021, lawmakers tasked the Judicial Branch with creating a plan to take custody of incarcerated children. Their initial proposal, released in January 2022, called for reopening the juvenile training school building by 2026, with renovation costs of about $22 million and operational costs of around $18 million.

Lawmakers asked the Judicial Branch for an updated plan by last week in a law passed in the 2023 legislative session.

In a press release, the Connecticut Justice Alliance critiqued the current proposal to repurpose the former detention center, which it said symbolizes for some a troubled chapter in the state’s history.

Connecticut should instead focus on developing smaller facilities for youth, located closer to the communities where they reside, said Joshua Rovner, director of youth justice at The Sentencing Project, which advocates for responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults.

“The state should invest in small facilities that prioritize humane treatment by staff with cultural competence,” Rovner said, “including formerly incarcerated people, who can be credible messengers in helping young people address the challenges that led to court involvement.”

Ashad Hajela is CT Public's Tow Fellow for Race, Youth and Justice with Connecticut Public's Accountability Project.

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