Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middetown

Correction officers working with juveniles incarcerated at Manson Youth Institution said they have ideas that would address some of the concerns laid out in the federal Department of Justice report and prevent the need to remove unsentenced teens to a new therapeutic setting.

The correction officers want better use of the prison’s 75-acre grounds, which could include sporting fields for outdoor recreation and the use of outbuildings for vocational programs, work release programs, and more staff including teachers and mental health workers to implement change.

But, while state Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros has been receptive, the frontline staff has not been included in conversations about the state’s response to the federal investigation which concluded the agency is violating the rights of juveniles by over-utilizing isolation as discipline and by not providing an adequate education or adequate mental health programming.

“There’s a lot of things we’d like to see done,” said Aaron Lichwalla, a correction officer at Manson YI and a vice president of AFSCME Local 387 representing DOC employees. “There are things we want to share with the administration of the facility and above.”

What they don’t want is to have the state enact a proposed plan to move unsentenced juveniles to a therapeutic setting at the old Connecticut Juvenile Training School. It would cost $22 million to renovate the Department of Children and Families Middletown facility that has been closed for nearly four years.

“It’s a big gamble that could have some terrible results,” Lichwalla said.

“They’re proposing to spend $22 million on something that failed the first time,” Brian Larson, another correction officer at Manson YI, said. “We have so much property on our grounds. Why not support a program that’s already working to flourish?”

The DOJ report on its investigation issued Dec. 21 detailed bleak conditions at the prison for juveniles including the extended use of isolation to punish teens for petty behaviors and few educational opportunities, especially for teens with disabilities.

A letter addressed to Gov. Ned Lamont that came with the report gave the state 49 days to craft a response that would rectify the conditions at the prison which houses about 40 male juveniles and 275 young adult males ages 18 to 22. The state could face a lawsuit if changes were not implemented, the letter said.

The federal investigation was prompted by a previous report issued by state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan who called attention to the use of isolation for teens, the lack of educational programming and the lack of mental health treatment.

The federal report outlined similar issues including dramatic examples of teens being placed in isolation for adolescent behaviors which exacerbated pre-existing mental health issues that aren’t being addressed, the lack of special education for kids with diagnosed disabilities and the lack of proper mental health assessments and treatment for more than two-thirds of the juveniles.

The state is mediating with the DOJ to resolve the issues, officials said. 

“We are focused on working collaboratively with the Department of Justice and Office of the Child Advocate,” said Ashley Turner, spokeswoman for the agency. “However, we cannot discuss the US DOJ letter or the ongoing mediation regarding the Manson Youth Institution. While the State mediates with the US DOJ on this matter, the attorneys representing us in the mediation ask that discussions regarding mediation remain confidential.” 

Lichwalla Larson, and Sean Howard, president of AFSCME Local 387, contend that as the federal investigation pointed out deficiencies, they were corrected well before the DOJ report came out.  

“All the custody-based have been solved,” Lichwalla said. “We’re no longer putting them in restrictive housing. If they are on discipline they can still have recreation time, call home, participate in religious and other programs.”

There are issues that “should have been addressed yesterday,” Lichwalla said, referring to the lack of adequate mental health assessments and treatment. “If we could have four more mental health workers they could do immediate assessments on first and second shift.”

More special education teachers – that’s a “no-brainer,” Lichwalla said. “Why aren’t we hiring more special education teachers?” he said.

The correction officers don’t have a role in education or mental health programming, Lichwalla said. But they do have a daily relationship with the juveniles, Larson said. “Ninety percent of us are parents,” Larson said. “We do have the life skills to cope with youth. When you are interacting with them you’re able to identify problems and get them help.”

Instead of moving the teens to a location that needs renovation and doesn’t have the tools to ensure their safety, Larson, Lichwalla and Howard want the state to invest in Manson YI so they can provide more vocational schooling that would allow young inmates to learn a trade, they said.

The expansive grounds could be used to teach landscaping, the barber certification program could be expanded as could the automotive shop that teaches how to fix cars, they said. “We could have a work release program and pair them with jobs in the community,” Lichwalla said.

But an expansion of programs including mental health treatment would require more funding, Howard said. “If the governor wants to change the system, we’re going to need the staff,” he added. “You have to put money into making this happen safely.”