Students are greeted with smiles every morning by staff including administrators, teachers said. There are murals and inspirational posters on the walls. Class time includes lessons in science and math, they said.
“We are warm, we are welcoming,” said Mr. Devery, an English as a Second Language teacher. “It’s its own community.”
In many ways, the school at Manson Youth Institution is the same as any other high school, Devery and Miss Corti, a certified secondary science teacher, said.
But its location at the prison for young men on the same campus as Cheshire Correctional Institution makes it a secondary education school like no other in the state. There is no funding based on local property taxes and no parent teacher organizations that can augment budgeted items with fundraising.
Its students, including about 50 male juveniles, and roughly 200 young adult males ages 18 to 21, are incarcerated on adult charges. While teachers and staff try to make the atmosphere conducive to learning, the reality is that they are state Department of Correction employees who have to deal with disciplinary concerns according to agency rules, said Devery and Corti who are union stewards for the Connecticut State Employees Association.
Devery and Corti asked to be identified by the names kids call them at school for security reasons. They wanted to speak about what is going right, and wrong, at the school as the prison has become the focal point of controversy after three reports detailed glaring inadequacies that federal Department of Justice investigators claim are violating the Constitutional rights of juvenile students.
Among the issues outlined in a DOJ report released in December, the school doesn’t provide enough special education programming for juvenile students with designated disabilities. The DOJ also pointed out inadequacies in mental health assessments and access to mental health clinicians and the use of isolation for minor disciplinary infractions.
Students are predominantly Black and Latino and about 60% of the juveniles have been identified as having some type of disability, according to the reports. Most of the juveniles are being held while their cases are pending in adult court, which means their length of stay can be as short as a few weeks to a few months or in some cases longer.
The school is part of United School District 1, an expansive school system across all 14 of the state’s prisons which is run solely by the DOC. Manson YI gets about $3.8 million annually from the DOC budget and another $210,000 from the DOC for administrators, according to agency spokesperson Ashley McCarthy.
USD1 gets $930,000 in federal funding for special education students age 22 and under, McCarthy said. Calculating the exact amount of federal funding that Manson YI receives is difficult since the money is based on the number of students age 22 and under, she said. Several other facilities provide schooling through USD1 for students who are age 22.
Gov. Ned Lamont has promised another $1.1 million to hire staff at Manson YI after the DOJ told him the state had 49 days from the release of the report to provide the federal agency with recommendations on how to fix the problems.
“We are always looking for talented and dedicated staff, including teachers, to enhance our programming opportunities,” McCarthy said. “The Governor’s budget specifically proposes nearly $1.1 million to be used for the hiring of additional teaching staff, including special education teachers.”
The problem isn’t just funding, according to state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan whose 2019 report on conditions for juveniles at Manson YI sparked the federal investigation. She found that many students attended school infrequently and participated in few programs designed to help them get back on track when they are released.
“It’s never just about money,” Eagan said. “What they need is a comprehensive needs assessment. What are the educational needs of the population? What resources do you have? What do you need for vocational support, transitional support, special education supports, general education supports, transitional supports, federal supports, what is the capacity of staff to deal with students who have intellectual disabilities?”
“Of course they need more resources,” Eagan added. “But it’s not as simple as hiring more teachers.”
She also said that the state Education Department should be monitoring the school to make sure federal educational law is followed and the state Education Department should have a comprehensive monitoring and enforcement plan that includes corrective actions.
“What is their boots on the ground plan for dealing with this?” Eagan said of the state Education Department. “In the past few years it appears they haven’t had one. That needs to change.”
Eagan’s second report on Manson YI released in November 2020 during the pandemic indicated that students at the school received no in-person or remote instruction from March to August that year despite the school being exempt from closure by Lamont.
Classes resumed in August 2020 Devery and Corti said, and with the exception of November to December 2021, the school has remained open. During the period of November to December 2021 teachers went to housing units to provide individual instruction due to a high level of COVID-19 cases in the facility, the teachers said.
On a typical weekday, students are in 20 classrooms for five hours a day, Corti said. “If you walk down the hallway, you’ll see kids engaged with their teacher, using technology,” Corti said. “We cater to all of the students’ individual needs. We provide classes to meet their educational needs and we’ll work with their home high school to make sure they have taken the classes they need to graduate.”
This month as the country celebrates Black History Month there will be “relevant” studies “that are honest to the history we exist in,” Devery said. “We provide enriching experiences that will help develop them as the next bright minds of the next generation,” he said.
But school staff, including special education teachers and counselors, have left in droves since the pandemic started, Corti said. “We’ve lost about 25 to 30% of staff in two years,” she said.
The DOC needs to hire teaching staff as soon as possible and provide wages and incentives that will keep them, Devery said. “Our main mission is to focus on our population to make sure their needs are met and exceeded,” he said. “We can’t do hiring, staffing and retainment, that’s not the role of our state school.”
It has to be up to the DOC to hire people and it should be done on a rolling basis as positions open up rather than allowing staff to be continuously depleted, Devery said.
The towns and cities where the juveniles live do not financially contribute to their education while they are incarcerated, Devery said. Since they work first shift only, there are no after school activities and not as many opportunities for teacher in-service training as provided to their public school counterparts, the two said.
But the staff is dedicated to providing the students with the best education possible, Corti said. “We want what’s best for our students,” Corti said. “I’ve never worked with more dedicated people. We have to perform our teaching every day with 20% less staff.”
The teachers get 18 hours of professional development a year that is funded by the federal government, Devery said. “We do get that,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that the minimum is the best.”