Gov. Ned Lamont offered $1.7 million in his recommended budget to provide more mental health clinicians and teachers to juveniles held at Manson Youth Institution as the state tries to avoid a lawsuit from the federal Department of Justice, which recently found the agency is violating the rights of young inmates by not providing an adequate education or supports.
But advocates and some lawmakers are saying the additional funding isn’t nearly enough to correct the problems at the facility and an entire revamp of juvenile incarceration system needs to take place.
“Just hiring more staff will not overhaul the system in the way it needs to be changed,” Marissa Halm, an attorney with the Center for Children’s Advocacy, said. “Staff working there need to be trained in development and brain science and dealing with kids with mental health issues and disabilities. There’s not developmentally appropriate programming and services. Merely hiring new staff isn’t going to get to the root of the problem.”
The DOJ report which was issued on Dec. 21 detailed several instances when males ages 15 to 17 were placed in isolation for prolonged periods over minor infractions, saying the practice and the lack of mental health supports “seriously harm children.”
DOJ investigators also cited the state Department of Correction for not providing adequate mental health assessments and treatment to juveniles and said the lack of special education programming is violating the rights of students with diagnosed disabilities.
In a letter to Lamont issued with the DOJ report, the state had 49 days from Dec. 21 to come up with a plan to correct the problems at the facility or potentially face a federal lawsuit.
The $1.7 million would go toward hiring six mental health professionals and 13 other staff including teachers, state Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros told members of the Appropriations Committee last week.
“The three areas identified were operations, mental health and the school,” Quiros said. “Addressing those should bring us into compliance.”
It’s not going to be enough, said Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, who asked Quiros to explain how the $1.7 million would be used. “We need to allocate more for mental health, especially during the pandemic,” Candelaria said Friday. “We’ve seen that teen suicide has increased dramatically. There is a shortage of providers out there. You can’t have an individual wait months for help. That doesn’t make sense.”
The whole system needs to be looked at and funded properly, said Appropriations Committee Co-Chair Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague. “It’s a tangled web of conflicting issues that need to be unraveled to solve it,” Osten said. “I do think the state needs to put more money in and I don’t think they received any of the federal funding from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act or ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act), we should be looking at that.”
At any given time there are about 50 male juveniles ages 15 to 17 housed at Manson YI while facing court proceedings on adult charges. Manson is also the state’s prison for young men ages 18 to 21, who by law must be kept separate from inmates age 22 and older. Of the 50 juveniles, only two have been sentenced to prison time as adults, officials said. They will be transferred to the section of the prison for the 18 to 21 year olds if their sentence is not completed by their 18th birthday.
About 60% of the juveniles have a diagnosed disability making them eligible for special education services as part of the prison’s high school program, officials said. The DOC receives about $930,000 in annual federal funding for special education students, according to the DOC which kicks in another $4 million a year to run the school at Manson YI.
Prior to the DOJ report’s release, the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee was reviewing a plan to move all unsentenced juveniles facing adult charges into a therapeutic setting, possibly by renovating the old Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.
The plan would allow for more mental health and developmental supports and provide opportunities for indoor and outdoor recreation and education. The juveniles would no longer be under the supervision of the DOC, but instead be placed with the Judicial Branch which oversees youth being held on juvenile charges or those teens who are sentenced to probation as juveniles.
But the CJTS plan is in limbo while the state deals with the DOJ report, according to Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee and the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee.
“We now have a Department of Justice investigation into the population we were talking about moving over so we have to address that before we can do anything,” Walker told the Appropriations Committee during a presentation on the Judicial Branch’s budget request Wednesday. “We’re kind of in limbo in what we’re trying to do with that because we can’t get into the middle of obstructing justice I guess, or something like that.”
State officials are working with the DOJ to come up with a plan to address the issues laid out in the report, Walker said during the JJPOC meeting Thursday.
Up to that point, Walker repeatedly told legislators and agency staff last week that they should not be pressing for answers or discussing the state’s response to the investigation which might impede negotiations.
Walker also indicated that the report might be discussed at the March JJPOC meeting, since the DOJ might issue a resolution by then.
“I don’t understand why we are waiting,” Christina Quaranta, JJPOC member and executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance, said. “It’s interesting that up to this point, no one has brought this up. That’s a mystery to me considering we are the only legislatively mandated body to deal with juvenile justice.”
The reality is that no amount of new staff and new text books is going to solve the problem, Quaranta said Friday. “We need a whole new model of intervention for these young men.”