Three years after closing it down, the Judicial Branch is recommending refurbishing the former Connecticut Juvenile Training School as a therapeutic environment for teens held in prison on adult charges.
The teens, all under age 18, are now confined at Manson Youth Institution and York Correctional Institution while their cases are pending in adult court. A federal investigation into practices at Manson recently concluded that the facility was violating the constitutional rights of teens by frequently using isolation as a punishment for minor violations and by not providing adequate education or mental health services.
The recommendation from a committee of branch officials, advocates and court staff would ask the legislature to fund a roughly $22 million project to renovate CJTS for use as a locked therapeutic setting for the teens as they await adjudication. It would cost about $18 million a year to operate the facility, according to the Branch.
The benefit would be that teens accused of engaging in serious criminal behavior would have a chance to receive the type of services that would lead them to a productive life, said Gary Roberge, executive director of the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division, which would run the facility.
“We’re going to provide the necessary therapeutic services while they are detained to address their criminal behavior,” Roberge said. The goal is to provide them with the tools they need so that they won’t come back through the system again, he said.
The plan calls for updating the CJTS campus for educational and vocational programs, indoor and outdoor recreation and medical and mental health services. Staff would engage the youth in dialectical behavior therapy, “which helps kids understand their thinking patterns better,” Roberge said. “It’s all about cognitive behavioral thinking and how you can change thought patterns.”
There are approximately 50 males under the age of 18 at Manson on any given day and three young women at York who are kept separate from the adult female prison population. Under the plan, the teens would remain at the renovated CJTS until their 18th birthday, when they would transfer to Manson or York while their case continues to be pending. They could also be transferred out of the program if they are sentenced to incarceration prior to turning 18.
Some of the same advocates who had lobbied hard to close the sprawling CJTS campus near the Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown are now behind the plan to reopen it, said Martha Stone, founder and executive director of the Connecticut Center for Children’s Advocacy.
“I was one of the original people arguing to get CJTS closed,” said Stone who was on the committee charged with crafting a plan to get the teens held pretrial out of adult prisons. “I advocated strongly for this plan (to reopen the facility). I think it’s the best plan that made the most sense.”
But not all advocates involved in the juvenile criminal justice system are solidly behind the recommendation to renovate CJTS. The Connecticut Justice Alliance, which advocates for justice-involved youth, recognized that there is likely no other state setting to get the teens out of Manson and York, said Iliana Pujols, policy director for the organization.
“It’s kind of a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t situation,” Pujols said. In the beginning of the process, Pujols and CTJA were against using the old facility for the teens held during pretrial proceedings, she said.
“But the reality is that the kids need to come out of the prisons and this was the only option,” she said.
The Judicial Branch was required to recommend a plan by Jan. 1 to remove the youth from adult prisons under a new law passed last year. The resulting 101-page document outlines the various options to remove the teens, including building on a new state site which could cost as much as $78 million, the authors of the report said.
That plan could take years and likely wouldn’t gain much support due to the cost, the report said.
There was also discussion of revamping current juvenile detention and residential centers to accommodate the teens held on adult charges, but that idea also didn’t gain traction with the committee due to physical limitations of the buildings which are in urban settings with no avenues for outdoor recreation, the report said.
CJTS was closed in 2018. The facility was considered a type of prison for delinquent juveniles who had been sentenced to probation in a residential setting. At that time, the facility was run by the state Department of Children and Families. By the time it was closed, there were about 45 or 50 young men at the facility who were transferred to the care of the Judicial Branch.
Juveniles who are sentenced to probation and residential treatment through juvenile court are now placed in three residential settings run by the Judicial Branch. None of the locations was large enough to take on an additional 50 kids who may need to be held for several months as their cases work their way through adult court, the report said.
The renovation plan could take as long as five years depending on the state bidding process and the approvals needed, Roberge said.
The report is now in the hands of legislators who will have to approve the plan before the branch can move forward with hiring an architect to flesh out what needs to be done, Roberge said.