Courtesy of the OCA report
A cell at Manson Youth Institution (Courtesy of the OCA report)

School officials meeting with legislators didn’t reveal that young men incarcerated at Manson Youth Institution had no educational programming for months during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report issued Tuesday by the state Office of the Child Advocate.

State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan wrote in the 75-page report that as the pandemic began to roll across the state in March, officials with the DOC’s Unified School District #1 cancelled educational programming for youth ages 15 to 18 held at Manson Youth Institution and instead, gave each young inmate a learning packet every two weeks.

The cancellation came as Gov. Ned Lamont’s directive to close schools statewide exempted the district, which by law must provide an education to incarcerated youth. Instead, the district issued printed packets to be completed by each student, Eagan said. The report states that the youth received no “synchronous learning or instructional calls with teachers” from March 16 to June 15. Only 6 out of 47 young men had done school work over those three months, according to the report.

School district officials failed to tell members of the legislature’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee during a May video presentation that few students were participating in school and there were barriers to student engagement and instruction, Eagan said.

The response from the district was that “no one had requested the information.” Eagan brought up the lack of student participation in learning to district and DOC officials in June, the report said. Eagan reported the concerns about inadequate educational opportunities for incarcerated youth to the state Department of Education while requesting a review.

The Center for Children’s Advocacy also reported the inadequacies to Lamont’s office and the Office of Attorney General William Tong, which has been in discussions with the nonprofit, officials said.

The agency respects the mission of the Office of the Child Advocate and welcomes the external assessments, said DOC Director of External Affairs Karen Martucci.

The agency acted on recommendations from Eagan’s first report on incarcerated youth issued in 2019, Martucci said.

“Our teachers, clinicians and correctional officers witness engagement outcomes everyday that simply cannot be measured,” DOC Commissioner Designee Angel Quiros said. “ We observe a building sense of confidence and self-worth amongst the youth, motivation and trust in the process and an overall feeling of hope.  It’s critical to note that not everything can be found in statistics.”

But Quiros said he has had a working relationship with Eagan’s office that has spanned a decade and he will continue to collaborate with the Child Advocate.

Eagan’s first report on the status of incarcerated children issued in January of 2019 led to changes in the law requiring the DOC to adopt “best practices” for the use of chemical agents, such as pepper spray, prone restraints and solitary confinement when dealing with youth inmates.

She followed up with another intensive review from Jan. 2019 to July 2019 looking at if, and how, the DOC had changed policies by examining youth records and conducting interviews about conditions at Manson and at York Correctional Institution, where young women are held.

The report released Tuesday said that while there has been some improvement, overall, the DOC needs to do more to help incarcerated youth break the cycle of crime and prison by providing young men and women under the age of 21 with consistent programming geared toward rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Eagan found that while the DOC has added some therapeutic programming, “significant concerns remain for incarcerated youth ages 15 to 21, and that progress remains hampered due to continued resource, program design and facility limitations of an adult prison custody model.”

It’s not about the DOC, Eagan said. It’s about legislators defining state policy on how Connecticut wants to deal with children in the criminal justice system, she said.

“We need to understand that the prison system is not mental health or rehabilitation driven, it’s custody driven. Corrections practices and best practices are not the same thing.”

Eagan’s report details a population of predominantly Black and Hispanic male teens who come from families involved with the state Department of Children and Families due to chronic concerns of physical abuse, physical neglect, educational and medical neglect. More than half of the families were the subject of four or more DCF investigations of child abuse or neglect; about one-third of the families were investigated 10 or more times for child maltreatment, the report said.

The youth participated in a full day of school about 50 % of the time, Eagan said. Many are working at a fourth grade level. Eagan found the majority of teens, 45 out of 68, participated in none—or only one—of the available treatment programs offered between January and July of 2019, including anger management, substance abuse treatment and life skills
The report also examined conditions for youth ages 18 to 21. Restrictive housing is still used as a method of dealing with inmates who are involved in fights, she said. There were 365 instances of inmates ages 18 to 21 being placed in restrictive housing with no contact to others 23.5 hours a day for periods of seven to 14 days, she said.

“That’s solitary confinement and that includes solitary confinement for youth with mental health issues,” Eagan said.

The DOC has made incremental gains in offering more programming, Eagan said. But she said she doubts it will be enough to satisfy the federal Department of Justice, which opened a civil rights investigation into the treatment of youth in Connecticut’s prisons after her first report was released in January of 2019.

Eagan is suggesting that the DOC provide small group programming during the pandemic and allow youth to have access to responsible adults who can discuss the public health crisis and their concerns for their families and their relationship with correction staff.

She also recommends an educational intake assessment process and monitoring process which would be reported to JJPOC on a regular basis. Eagan said the JJPOC should tour Manson and York to view cell confinement and segregation areas and make changes to state law to ensure youth aren’t held in prolonged isolation.

Mental health screening also should be addressed and new directives regarding treatment programming should be put in place with the legislature making sure the DOC has adequate resources to meet the needs of the incarcerated youth population, Eagan said.

“The DOC is fulfilling its role as an adult correctional institution,” Eagan said. “But is the correctional system equipped to respond to the intensive mental health and educational needs of incarcerated youth?”