Mason Youth Institute

Teachers are quick to summon correction officers if a student talks back or disagrees with a decision not to call mental health staff, according to young adults incarcerated at Manson Youth Institution.

“It can be as simple as you and a classmate arguing,” said 17-year-old Dayshawn, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “You wind up receiving disciplinary action for something you didn’t even do.”

There are times when people are told to submit a written request to speak to a social worker or psychologist but no one responds, said John, an 18-year-old who was sentenced as a youthful offender and is now being held with other young men ages 18 to 21 at Manson YI.

“They have 14 business days to get back to you,” said John whose names has also been changed. “By the 14th day whatever you were tripping on is long gone. And if they don’t get back to you in two weeks they tell you write another request.”

Dayshawn, John, and Joseph, 19, agreed to speak from the prison under assumed names at a webinar Feb. 2 on advocating for youth at Manson YI hosted by the Center for Children’s Advocacy in conjunction with the state’s Office of the Public Defender Services.

The goal was to get input from professionals in the field of juvenile and youth justice and from the youth themselves to determine what’s needed to reform practices in Connecticut regarding the incarceration and rehabilitation of young adults.

Speakers included state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of the national Juvenile Law Center and Winette Saunders, First Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Administration of Children’s Services.

The discussion comes against the backdrop of the state crafting a response to a federal investigation into conditions at Manson YI that concluded the use of prolonged isolation and the lack of adequate mental health assessments and treatment and the lack of education, particularly for students with disabilities is violating the constitutional rights of the juveniles housed there.

At the same time, the legislature’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee is considering a proposal to remove juveniles from Manson YI in favor of a therapeutic setting while the unions representing correction officers are lobbying against the plan.

The setting doesn’t necessarily matter, said Eagan whose own investigation into Manson YI prompted the federal review. Transformation requires transformation, Eagan said before explaining that JJPOC is working on the proposal based on the direction that federal law is taking on the incarceration of juveniles.

“Too often we’re focused on a facility,” Eagan said. “We need to move the from on where to put kids to what is the work we need to do to transform the system.”

There needs to be adequate assessment of mental health and treatment, more special education provided for young men with documented disabilities and more programing that focuses on de-escalation, “credible messengers” who are people with lived experience with the justice system who are willing to share their story and more vocational and educational opportunities and less dependency on isolation or in-cell time to deal with behaviors often caused by untreated mental health concerns, the panel including Eagan said.

There are 43 males juveniles being held at Manson YI, advocates said. The overwhelming majority – 90% – are awaiting resolution for adult charges and have not been sentenced. About 60 to 70% have special education needs and 60% have mental health concerns and 80% identify as Black or Hispanic, said Marissa Halm, an attorney with the Center for Children’s Advocacy.

“If our policies were working, we wouldn’t see this disproportional disparity,” Feierman said.

Manson YI also houses 277 young men ages 18 to 21, Halm said. Of that population, about 30% are being held while their cases are pending and 30% have special education needs, she said.

The federal investigation focused on the conditions for the juveniles but the young adult males share many of the same problems, said John and Joseph who also spent time at Manson YI as juveniles.

Being restricted to a cell 23 hours a day while facing disciplinary action is hard, Dayshawn said. “During that one hour I don’t know how you choose between taking a shower or calling your family,” he said.

There are times when the 17-year-old doesn’t get clean sheets for months to change his bedding and inmates will also lose mental health services if they are disciplined, Dayshawn said. “They don’t give you a chance to learn from your mistakes,” he said.

Dayshawn is being held for nine months as he faces adult assault and robbery charges that involved the death of his best friend, said Halm who called him outspoken and empathetic. He’s working on completing his high school diploma while incarcerated and misses playing football, which Halm called “his true love.”

John is serving a two-year sentence, Halm said. He’s been involved in juvenile court from a young age, she said. He plays saxophone and drums when he’s not incarcerated and is creative, has strong leadership skills and is funny, Halm said.

“You can’t put somebody in here and hold them down for five or six years and send them back to the community with no support,” said John, who told panelists that he had no access to vocational programming to learn job skills.

Joseph has seen teachers call for correction officers if a student is sharpening their pencil or raising their hand too much, he said. The calls usually always lead to discipline which could mean the loss of privileges for an extended period, the three said. “What would be more helpful is if they just pulled us aside and talked to us,” said John.

“We should have help getting jobs and housing so we are on the right path when we leave,” Joseph said. “What we need are older people to come out and speak to us about their experiences so we could learn from their mistakes.”