The 15-year-old African-American prisoner sat outside his cell reading intently, taking advantage of quiet time, as he was the only prisoner in the cell block of building three at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.
The guard at the security console in the sterile main hall of the cell block sat quietly, too, but the 14 of us Quinnipiac University School of Law students taking a tour on Friday, February 23, with our two guides, were noisy, talking through the educational experience of visiting such a facility.
We were alone in the living quarters, which almost felt like a dorm but for the prison accoutrements. The other prisoners who lived there were playing basketball or hanging out over at the Boys Club on campus.
While some law students mingled in front of the guard station, and others tried to comprehend teenaged life in the tiny cells, I wandered over and said hello to the prisoner.
I asked him what he was reading. “Last Man Standing,” he said, the story of Black Panther Geronimo Ji Jaga. The young man seemed engrossed, so I didn’t want to bother him, but he said it was a good book. I told him we were from QUSL and just taking a tour.
Then we had to move along. I had never heard of Ji Jaga before. Formerly known as Elmer Pratt, Geronimo Ji Jaga was a political prisoner. He spent 27 years locked up in California prisons for a crime he didn’t commit. Johnnie Cochran defended him in the murder trial in 1970, and called it his toughest case ever because of state shenanigans.
Ji-Jaga now lives in his home of Louisiana, still fighting the good fight. All that time changes a man, Ji Jaga told Essence magazine in November 1997.
“There’s a quote I like from Henry David Thoreau, who was a hell of a rebel on his own,” Ji Jaga said. “I think it was Civil Disobedience, where he said, ‘In a society that imprisons unjustly, the only place for a just man is in prison.’ That makes all the sense in the world to me. It’s war in prison.”
It’s war out here, too. But the Essence interviewer followed up: “Do you have any sense of how many Black men and women may be inside for political reasons?”
Ji Jaga, straight, no chaser: “You may call me crazy [but I believe] that because of our socioeconomic conditions, every Black man and woman in prison is, in fact, a political prisoner. Every one, bar none. If you’ve got money, you’re not going to prison,” he said.
That 15 year old knows it. And after my tour of three of the six buildings at the facility, I feel a little closer to Ji Jaga’s truth, too. Out of about 98 inmates at CJTS, ranging in age from 14 to 18, not a one is white, according to one of our two tour guides.
The boys – about 75 black, and maybe 23 Latinos – come from Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Danbury, Waterbury and Torrington, our guide said. While the population shifts regularly, the white inmate is rare.
He didn’t have the exact numbers. He’s a shift supervisor, rank-and-file in 1199 SEIU, not a bureaucrat, and he said the muckety-mucks don’t tell him racial breakdowns or recidivism rates. He and his staff know it by observation.
But a kid has to do something to get in here, they assure us. All these boys have done something, been arrested eight or nine times at the minimum.
If a 13 year old catches a charge for say, marijuana, where the white kid in the suburbs has parents who can afford a lawyer, this boy can’t. And he avoids prison the first few times. like Philip K. Dick said, once they have a file on you, they always do.
So then he violates probation because he gets caught in the hallway in high school without a pass. And he ends up in CJTS. That happens.
Some of the boys are in there for probation violations, some violent offenses, some drugs, some guns, our guides said.
We got lucky with our guides. If we got DCF administrators, we would have had a completely different tour. I never would have been able to interact the young man focused in Ji Jaga’s life.
Nor could I could have talked to the four teens sitting in front of the television at the on-prison Boys’ Club lounge, where we went after the dormitory experience.
I walked over and told them we were QUSL students. I explained how law school takes three to four years to complete, and that we were all in different stages of the process.
Anyone can go to law school, I said. Some of us here have even caught charges, I said. They looked at me like I was crazy. Honest, I said, I got nailed for breach of peace and interfering with an officer for standing on a sidewalk taking pictures. I go back to court March 2.
They were dumbfounded. Or maybe it was the smell of hot Chinese take out settling across the common area of the Boys and Girls Club on campus. Jamie, a 3L, came over and asked one of them how he thought living in CJTS was.
In a word, he said it sucked. I didn’t want to ask him that. I always figured that it wouldn’t be fun to live in a $57 million detention facility for wayward youth, especially where the main movers behind the no-bid contract that built it, including a governor, his chief of staff and a construction magnate, all ended up in jail.
While John G. Rowland and his cronies ended up in federal country clubs, and now are all back on the streets, the boys who live in CJTS pay the price of their corruption. The public policy which begat CJTS was avarice and greed.
I wish I had the time to sit down and explain all this to the young men in CJTS, sitting in the Boys’ Club salon next to foosball and air hockey tables. But they already know the story, and can fill in the remaining blanks with their own details. Our tour had to move on, to see more in the newly-refurbished Boys Club.
The only reason a Boys Club exists on campus is because DCF deemed the highest security of the four dormitories too restrictive for the overall philosophy of the program, which seems to have migrated from punishment to rehabilitation.
D CF decided to try art therapy instead. So the state has converted the cells, featuring stainless steel toilet/sink combos, into really, really expensive art closets.
There are 250 video cameras across campus, some of which captured the beatings in Youth Rights’ Media movie, and the cameras in this Boys Club have been rendered somewhat ineffective by the change of heart. The expensive console sits empty.
Our tour guides explained that boys who were locked down in this maximum security facility started flushing their sheets down the toilets and blocking the sinks and flooding the rooms. I wondered why that didn’t happen in the old Long Lane, which had the same kind of toilet-sink combos in the rooms, or the facility in Ohio that CJTS was modeled after?
During John Rowland’s ten month stay in a federal penitentiary, he lived in cells much larger than the ones he conspired to build, according to our guides. They also said that his prison had a golf course, too. As taxpayers carry a prime debt load on CJTS, the buildings are outdated after only being in use for five years.
In the main visiting room, taxpayers financed a non-contact visiting room, where phones sit on either side of a large pane of glass. The room is not used for visits, our guides said, because if the kids are so off-the-wall that they need such security for a visit, they can’t come down at all.
But the very fact that the room exists is the problem. How does the presence of that room affect people who work there? It isn’t church.
Even Governor M. Jodi Rell has suggested knocking CJTS down and replacing it by 2008. But nothing that larges moves that rapidly in this state. So we will continue to incarcerate a minority population on a campus that from a quick glance, could be homey, almost like a New England prep school, with a view of tree-lined rolling hills to the east and spectacular pink sunsets to the west.
One of our QUSL students suggested that the inmates could get used to it, and it was probably better for them than surviving on the mean streets. They get three squares a day inside. Would that young man have the opportunity to read Geronimo Ji Jaga on the outside?
She even said CJTS seemed too comfortable, that the boys shouldn’t have the opportunity to feast on a Friday night on greasy lo mein and fortune cookies. They’ve done something wrong, punish them.
I realized later that night, home safe, that if it is better for them inside, yet inside is so horrible a place, where solitary confinement cells greet prisoner-youth at the dormitory doors, how bad must it be outside and why must we subject young people to the hell of the outside part, where on your way home from high school in Hartford, you can get jumped by two teen girls and have them try to cut one of your fingers off with a pair of dull scissors?
When one of our out-of-state QUSL students asked if there was a facility in Connecticut like CJTS for girls, our guides said no. Teen girls live in various facilities across the state, they said.
Some live in Stepping Stone in Farmington. Some are in York Correctional for Women in Niantic, even though they aren’t 18. But that is standard practice.
Connecticut’s adult prisons feature more children under age 18 than any other state in the nation, according to a well-reported indictment by Colin Poitras printed in the Courant, Thursday, March 22.
The Nutmeg state’s 383 youth in real jails outranks New York’s 223, Florida’s 185, North Carolina’s 169 and Texas’ 167. This isn’t company we want to keep, especially not when these states have populations 10 times ours, and are known as death penalty havens like Florida and Texas.
Yeesh. So other teenaged female inmates live in Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, despite the fact that the girls have never been diagnosed with any mental illness, our guides said. Add the lack of a cohesive DCF strategy to handle teen girls to the list of problems.
And despite the fact that CJTS isn’t designed to deal with boys on psychotropic medicines, about 50 percent of them currently there take prescription medications, our guides told us. Another 50 percent of the boys locked inside CJTS are fathers. I don’t remember the percentage of kids in special education on campus, but it was high.
Our guides weren’t sure of the overlap on all three. But doesn’t it kind of doom the children of those children? They happened to be born to a family where one parent is in jail, and the other one was stuck in a place – the city- whose imagery invokes such misery that people could mistake prison as a safer, better place.
Those children, the babies now, they are probably the ones who will be filling CJTS in 14 years from now. What are we doing to insure that doesn’t occur? That is the policy question we must answer.
When those children can see their fathers, it’s only for two hours at a time, either at on weekday nights or a few more hours than that on the weekends. The way the hours are staggered, with two before noon and three in the afternoon, inmates can’t eat lunch with their families.
A friend of mine was too old for CJTS when he started his four-year bid for shooting up a convenience store trying to get money to cop some PCP. Dude lived in various prisons across Connecticut, including little Cheshire, big Cheshire and Carl Robinson (when Michael Ross was executed), and was released in early January.
Yeah, at times, he said, it was easier inside. There was a routine. But during his time, he said he learned to ask one question two ways: How come DOC produces only monsters? When will DOC start to turn out geniuses?
I hope that young man sitting outside his cell devouring the words of Geronimo Ji Jaga will be one of the geniuses. In fact, I hope all of the 98 inmates currently housed there someday earn their way into Mensa, in spite of their current living conditions.