Mason Youth Institute.

Despite an increased emphasis on more programming to avoid conflicts, the number of times chemical agents were used on juveniles at Manson Youth Institution has remained steady or increased, according to figures released by the state Department of Correction and state Child Advocate.

Last week was the first time Manson Warden Derrick Molden and two deputy wardens presented the numbers and detailed information on the use of chemical agents on juveniles to the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee after the legislative body was able to get a law passed last year requiring the DOC to provide the data annually.

Correction officers used a chemical agent on 19 male juveniles during eight incidents from June to February, according to Correction Department officials. One of the incidents involved six kids who fought in a school classroom at the prison, Manson Deputy Warden Mark Bonaventure said.

The use of chemical agents during a severe incident is considered a “lifesaving event,” Bonaventure said. Going hands-on with an inmate could cause further injury, he said.

There are 47 juveniles ages 15 to 17 in the custody of the DOC, most of whom are yet to be sentenced and being held on adult charges. Only one female, age 16, was at York Correctional Facility, the state’s prison for women. There were no chemical agents used on juvenile females over the past few years, according to the DOC and state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, who periodically provides reports on conditions for juveniles and young adults at the prisons.

Manson is under intense scrutiny from the federal Department of Justice, which concluded after a months-long investigation that the DOC is violating the rights of juveniles by not providing adequate mental health screening and treatment, and by not providing special education to inmates with diagnosed disabilities. The investigation was sparked by Eagan’s 2019 report that indicated that juveniles at Manson were participating in few programs and attending school sporadically.

The juvenile population at Manson is 74% Black, 17% Hispanic, and 9% white, DOC officials said. Of the 19 juveniles who were subject to a chemical agent from June to February, 17 were Black, the data showed.

“The numbers look staggering in the breakdown of chemical agent utilization,” Molden said. “But that’s attributed to our high Black population.”

Five of the male juveniles exposed to a chemical agent from June to February had prior respiratory issues but none required follow up treatment, Bonaventure said. Three-quarters of the juvenile population at Manson have a mental health score of three or above. A mental health score of three indicates that the juvenile has a mild mental health disorder that may or may or may not require medication, he said.

Most of the juveniles who were exposed to chemical agents in the same period had a mental health score of three, but none had a mental health score of five, which would indicate they need crisis care, Bonaventure said.

In 2020, a chemical agent was used 8 times, which impacted 15 individuals under the age of 18, according to Ashley McCarthy, spokeswoman for the DOC.  From Jan. 1 to June 4, 2021, a chemical agent was used four times, impacting eight juveniles, McCarthy said.

Although some of the juveniles were not directly impacted by the chemical agent but involved in the incident, they are still counted among the overall number of juveniles impacted, McCarthy said.

In 2019, chemical agents were used on 18 male juveniles – a decrease of one from 2018, according to Eagan. In every case, the incidents when a chemical agent was used in 2018 and 2019 involved a fight between juvenile boys, Eagan said.

DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros lobbied against a bill that would have prohibited the use of chemical agents on teens, calling it a matter of “safety” for staff and inmates. “I must caution that losing this option altogether during a significant incident would increase injuries to youth and our staff,” Quiros said. “It would also likely result in more of my staff being out on workers’ compensation due to injuries which could have been avoided.” 

Compromise legislation that was signed by Gov. Ned Lamont removed the prohibition and replaced it with a required annual report that included detailed data on the use of chemical agents on teens and their demographic information.

Since June, Molden has been working on ways to de-escalate conflict through additional programing to reduce the use of chemical agents. He’s started a men’s group that allows teens a safe space to talk freely about their trauma, their hopes and dreams, Molden said.

“Kids tell me when we were home, we’d be trying to shoot each other,” Molden said. Thanks to the men’s group, they see each other as people who have the same problems and struggles they do, he said.

Manson also started a Community Council that was inspired by the JJPOC, Molden said. “It’s given us an opportunity to give them a voice,” he said.

The 46 juveniles in Manson participated in 159 programs including 134 restorative justice circles, which provide avenues for discussion on how harmful behaviors can be resolved without violence. Eight of the juveniles participated in substance abuse programming and 17 participated in a handful of other programs offered, Molden said.

But Christina Quaranta, the executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance pointed out that 19 juveniles were exposed to chemical agents while only eight participated in substance abuse treatment. “More people got sprayed than got the help they needed,” Quaranta said.

Eagan was also concerned about the level of programming, especially in light of the DOJ investigation, she said.

“The data provided shows that a low percentage of children participated in clinical programming during the period under review by the DOC,” Eagan said. “The children at MYI have substantial rehabilitative and clinical needs. The core of the DOJ findings from December is that assessment, treatment, and interventions for youth in the facility are inadequate, and developmentally inappropriate.”

The lack of appropriate programming and consistent intervention leads to more fights, which are dealt with by the use of chemical agents, Eagan said. “It will be important to monitor and review data on clinical and individual therapeutic participation in the next quarter as lockdowns associated with management of COVID-19 in the prisons are lifted,” she said.

Staff doesn’t take the use of chemical agents lightly and they are only used on an immediate basis when juveniles are fighting and can’t be de-escalated, Molden said.

“At times it’s a necessary tool,” Molden said. “But even when we get our numbers down to one, we want to go down to zero.”