Mason Youth Institute

A two-year federal Department of Justice Civil Rights Division investigation found that Manson Youth Institution, the only Connecticut prison to house males under the age of 18, is violating the Constitution by placing juveniles in isolation for minor offenses and by not providing adequate mental health care and special education services to children with disabilities.

“Children in adult correctional facilities do not forfeit their constitutional and federal rights,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in the 27-page report. “Our investigation uncovered systemic evidence that children are deprived of mental health and educational services they need to become productive, successful adults.”

The investigation was prompted by a report issued by state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan who drew most of the same conclusions during her own investigation, which was released in January of 2019.

“This is an urgent call to action for the state and for advocates for children that more than incremental progress is required and reform must be sweeping, urgent and meaningful,” Eagan said of the DOJ’s findings.

It isn’t about going after the state Department of Correction or any other state agency, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said. It’s about making sure that the youth the state puts in custody come out as productive human beings, he said after the report was released.

“We’re not safer for putting someone in the system for security when the system actually breaks the human being down,” Winfield, who has spoken with DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros about the findings, said. “We have the responsibility of returning to society a human being that’s not worse. If we aren’t addressing their education and mental health needs, we’re not returning a human that’s ready for society.”

According to federal authorities, the prison houses between 30 and 50 young males under the age of 18, the bulk of whom are Black or Latino and are being held while their cases are pending in adult court. Some are as young as 14-years-old, federal authorities said.

After a site visit, interviews with staff and inmates and a review of extensive documentation, the DOJ concluded that conditions for children at Manson violated the Eighth and Fourteen Amendments and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The state has 49 days to begin working with the DOJ to correct the practices or the U.S. Attorney General will file a lawsuit against the state, the DOJ said in a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont.

“We are reviewing the report and are committed to working cooperatively with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice on this serious matter,” David Bednarz, a spokesman for Lamont, said. “We have already taken steps, pursuant to state law signed by Governor 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.”

The DOC referred all requests for comment to Lamont’s office. 

According to the report, in many cases mental health staff did not accurately diagnose or treat the young males for obvious mental illnesses and the youth were routinely placed in isolation for minor offenses or for “typical adolescent development” behaviors including lower impulse control and self-regulation, poor decision-making and high susceptibility to peer influence.

“Even when children are calm and compliant, they are handcuffed, strip searched, and locked in isolation cells as punishment,” the report said.

Some of the behaviors that lead to isolation stemmed from unmet mental health or special education needs, the report said. In one case a boy called “Ryan” was previously diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder-Hyperactivity Disorder and had been exposed to a significant amount of violence and abuse as a child but mental health staff determined “that he did not have any mental health issues that required treatment.”

Ryan was receiving 10 hours of special education a week at his community school but that time was reduced to one hour a week while at Manson, “without any explanation of why a 96% reduction in services was justified, appropriate or adequate,” the DOJ report said.

In another case, a boy called “Matthew” was placed in isolation after being cited for “interfering with security and safety.” Staff determined Matthew was a “serious threat to life, property, self, other inmates and/or the security of the facility” after writing on his shoes with a marker that he had taken from the teacher’s desk, the report said.

The prison’s isolation practices not only harm children by exacerbating their unmet mental health needs, but it’s also “an ineffective disciplinary technique for restoring facility security and is in fact counterproductive to facility discipline and security,” the report said.

The DOJ investigation found that Manson’s isolation practices harmed children, and that the prison failed to provide adequate mental health services, including conducting adequate mental health assessments, failed to adequately identify trauma, failed to assess and treat children for substance abuse and other psychiatric disorders and failed to adequately assess children placed in isolation.

The DOJ also concluded that Manson inappropriately reduced mental health scores and doesn’t engage children who decline treatment to get them into services. The group therapy sessions offered are not appropriate for children and the educational needs of children with disabilities are not being met, the report said.

Minimum corrective measures that need to be implemented include revamping the use of isolation for minor misbehaviors and when children pose no threat to safety, develop a plan to put children who have been placed in isolation back into the general population as quickly as possible and developing strategies that reinforce positive behaviors, the report said.

The agency must also provide mental health screening and treatment that includes adequate consideration of trauma-related mental health issues and discontinue the practice of lowering a child’s mental health score if they won’t participate in therapy or medication.

Manson must also provide individualized special education to meet children’s needs, provide adequate behavior interventions and support for students with disabilities and utilize reliable screening processes to ensure the timely evaluation of children suspected of having a disability, the report said.

The findings will likely spur state legislation, Winfield said. “I did have a conversation with the commissioner today and we knew there were going to be things that weren’t positive,” Winfield said. “This is here now and we are going to sit down and have that conversation.”