DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook and Gov. Ned Lamont speak with Ray Boyd, Abbas Mohamad, and James Davids III in the T.R.U.E. Unit (ANDRIUS BANEVICIUS / CONNECTICUT DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION)

The National Juvenile Justice Network, comprising 53 state-based advocacy organizations across 42 states and the District of Columbia, has frequently recognized Connecticut as a leader in its creation of a rehabilitative justice system for youth under 18. In this vein, we were pleased to see in your Feb. 5, 2019, article that Gov. Ned Lamont visited the T.R.U.E. Unit at Cheshire Correctional Institute where the program is committed to ending mass incarceration.

At the same time, we couldn’t help but think of the 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds just across the street at Manson Youth Institution (MYI) — an adult correctional facility housing youth under 18 who are transferred to the adult system, as well as other young adults up to the age of 21 — who, according to a recent report authored by the Office of the Child Advocate (OCA), are not treated so well, and in fact are subjected to regular use of pepper spray, isolation, and restraints.

The two facilities highlight two opposing justice systems and philosophies in Connecticut. The T.R.U.E unit, deeply rooted in what we know about the continuous evolution of the brain until the early 20s, offers 18- to 25-year-old emerging adults a therapeutic environment dedicated to ensuring those individuals can thrive when they are released home. At T.R.U.E. there is access to mentors, a humane, respectful living environment, and other supports to be successful while incarcerated and upon re-entry.

Meanwhile, at the Manson Youth Institute, boys under the age of 18 are not only denied all of the rehabilitative programs available at T.R.U.E., they are subject to shockingly inhumane conditions. At MYI, boys are frequently isolated in their cells for up to 23-and-a-half hours a day, have limited access to mental health services, are not adequately monitored to prevent suicide, and, in many cases, denied access to education, in defiance of state and federal educational law.

These differences are troubling enough, and yet it’s impossible to talk about incarceration anywhere, including Connecticut, without confronting systemic, structural racism. A 2017 report from Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee found that black youth were significantly more likely to be transferred to the adult system for B felonies than their white peers. For instance, if a white boy and a black boy from the same neighborhood and same history with the police commit the same crime, the white boy will likely stay in the juvenile justice system and get access to supports and services while he is incarcerated. The black boy, on the other hand, will get a ticket to MYI, where correction officials aren’t trained or supported to successfully deal with children, and the conditions are not rehabilitative at best and inhumane at worst.

The contrast between the Office of the Child Advocate report on MYI and the good work at the T.R.U.E. unit raises the question as to why the Connecticut Department of Correction has prioritized using evidence-based programming for the adults in its care while sticking with outdated, inhumane treatments and philosophies for the children it supervises?

In recent years Connecticut made a firm commitment to do better by youth, revising its juvenile justice statutes to replace “punish the child” as the purpose of the system with a focus on rehabilitation. Connecticut closed its large youth prison in favor of smaller facilities and community-based interventions and removed from the courts entirely such non-criminal offenses such as truancy and running away. Such steps showed great vision for a better way of supporting young people. Yet somehow the youth at MYI are inexplicably exempted from this vision.

We know youth can be held accountable without being dehumanized. We know this because research, programs, and facilities across the country have proved it, as does the success of Connecticut’s own T.R.U.E program. We know this because when youth and young adults are housed in respectful environments and afforded educational opportunities and mental health services, there are fewer incidents and better outcomes.

Not surprisingly, youth themselves will have the most informative perspective on what works, so we encourage Gov. Lamont to continue his learning by walking across the street from Cheshire to visit with youth at Manson. While he’s there, he’ll see for himself the stark differences between the two environments. When he finishes his visit, we hope that Gov. Lamont will commit to extending the benefit of evidence-based practices to all youth in Connecticut by ensuring that no child under the age of 18, even youth with cases in adult court, will be held in an adult facility, and immediately addressing the conditions of confinement these boys face until they can be removed to a youth facility.

Sarah Bryer is the Executive Director of the National Juvenile Justice Network.

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