Department of Children and Families officials described their plans to improve conditions at the state’s two juvenile jails to an oversight panel Friday, but much of the discussion that followed centered on more fundamental questions: Do the incarcerated young people – many of whom have psychiatric needs and histories of trauma – leave better off than they came in? Can the facility’s problems be addressed through better staff training or programs, or are they symptoms of problems inherent in the jails?
And should they continue to serve young people at all?
Rep. Toni Walker, who co-chairs the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, noted that Ohio has closed the facility used as the model for the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, or CJTS, which currently houses 65 boys ages 20 and under.
“Do we think that CJTS, the way it’s been designed, not the way you’ve inherited it, is the best method of delivering for the state of Connecticut?” Walker asked DCF Commissioner Joette Katz. “Is this the best way forward?”
Katz, who has previously rejected advocates’ calls for the state to close its youth prisons, acknowledged that the housing units on the Middletown campus are “correctional in nature,” and said that “creates an issue of culture.”
Katz said she would like to have architects examine what it would cost to make those buildings look more like dorms.
“I think it’s appropriate here to explore lots of other options, and that would be one,” she said.
But state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, whose office released a report last month warning that youth at CJTS and the neighboring Pueblo Unit for girls were subjected to “unlawful” restraints and dangerous conditions, suggested that some of the problems are the product of confining young people, not a lack of programs or resources.
Eagan said she had been struck by how frequently youth at the jails expressed despair or engaged in self-harm or suicide attempts or suicidal gestures. Young people who are confined are more at risk of those behaviors, in part because they have been removed from their families, communities and coping mechanisms, she said. DCF officials say they’re working to improve suicide prevention at the two facilities.
But Eagan noted that CJTS is perhaps the most richly resourced juvenile justice facility anywhere, and said the fact that youth are still experiencing those problems “is telling us something we have to pay attention to.”
“If that level of risk is documented in this type of facility, I guess my question is, for what reward? For what value? And for what public safety impact?” Eagan said. “That’s ultimately the purpose of the facility, and if we don’t know the answer to that other question, then as an advocate, I guess I question why we tolerate that level of risk in this type of facility.”
Friday’s meeting followed the release of two reports on CJTS and the Pueblo Unit, which currently houses five girls. In an evaluation released last month, Robert Kinscherff, a national juvenile justice expert, praised many improvements the state has made in the past decade, including a significant reduction in the number of youth incarcerated. But he also raised questions about the mental health services provided at the juvenile jails. At CJTS, he wrote, 34 percent of youth have “significant mental health disorders,” and about 90 percent have two or more psychiatric diagnoses.
Separately, the child advocate’s report said conditions at the facilities placed many youth “at risk of physical and emotional harm.” Youths had been restrained at least 532 times in one 12-month period, according to the report, which said some instances of restraint or solitary confinement were unlawful, and used to manage behavior or discipline, even if there was no ongoing emergency.
Days later, DCF released an action plan that included eliminating or limiting certain types of restraints, increasing oversight on the use of restraints, and making mental health clinicians more available.
During Friday’s meeting, Katz noted that the two facilities serve a tiny fraction of the approximately 10,000 youth involved with the juvenile court system each year. She said the department is working to transition the jails to a more therapeutic model, but acknowledged that work remains to be done.
Some oversight committee members praised the department’s action plan as impressive, although some raised questions about whether the steps were enough and how their implementation would be monitored.
But much of the discussion focused on bigger-picture questions about the facilities.
Katz noted that Kinscherff had pointed out a tension between developing operations to support short-term stabilization efforts to help youth return to community-based services and supporting longer-term rehabilitation efforts to address trauma, significant behavioral health and educational needs and other life skills.
Walker, D-New Haven, said she believed the root of the problem at CJTS “is the fact that we’re not sure, is it a rehabilitative facility or is it a correctional facility?”
Lara Herscovitch, deputy director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, one of several advocacy groups that have called for closing juvenile jails, arguing they are ineffective, cited reports dating back to 2002 that raised concerns about inappropriate response to suicidal behavior, overuse of restraints and seclusion, insufficient staff training and issues with internal quality assurance.
“And now here we are in 2015 — we’re talking about 13 years later — and we’re having the same conversation,” she said. “Part of the reason why we’re having this conversation, honestly, why we run the risk of having this conversation again in 10 years if we don’t get it right this time, is because it’s a correctional institution.”
Herscovitz alluded to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” initiative – criminal justice reforms aimed at lowering incarceration rates – and the governor’s recent statement that CJTS “is not the facility I would have opened.”
“Everyone admits that we wouldn’t build it now,” she said. “So let’s fix it for real.”
Asked by Walker whether CJTS was the best way to meet the needs of those it serves, Katz noted concerns that have previously been raised about alternatives. Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration in 2008 considered having five smaller secure facilities, which Katz said would have cost $15 million each to build and $9 million each year to run. And she noted that Kinscherff questioned whether smaller, regional facilities would have the level of resources that the Middletown facilities now have. CJTS costs $30 million per year to operate.
“I think it’s not just a moral and philosophical conversation, it’s clearly a fiscal one,” she said.
Although she suggested the state consider changing the correctional design of the housing units, Katz maintained that the state will continue to need a secure facility, saying there will always be some young people who need it, and that she was not aware of any juvenile justice system in the country that doesn’t have a secure facility. But where that facility is and what it looks like is your decision, she told the legislators on the panel, adding that it was her job to make it as therapeutic and rehabilitative as possible.
“My goal is to have as few kids there as possible, for as short a time as possible, but if you don’t have it, you put incredible pressure on the rest of the system,” Katz said.
Eagan said she didn’t disagree that, for the foreseeable future, there will be a need for secure care. But she said it could be delivered in more effective models.
She said after the meeting that she thought those involved in the discussion are not far apart in recognizing the need to make improvements and explore more effective alternatives at the two facilities. She said she hoped the conversations would lead to a concrete action plan.
And she said her office’s work was aimed in part at trying to show who the young people in the jails are.
“We are talking about real kids,” she said.
Differing descriptions of those at the two jails emerged during the council’s discussion. Katz noted that many have “long histories of trauma, unmet mental health needs and, often, abuse and neglect.” But she also noted that they have generally been given three to five opportunities to reform their behaviors.
Chief Public Defender Susan Storey described seeing a video that showed a staff member putting on a face mask when restraining a girl. Why was it used, she asked, and how does it impact traumatized children?
Officials said it was a spit guard. Kristy Ramsey, assistant superintendent of Pueblo, said that girl spit in staff’s faces every time she had an incident, so they were trying to be proactive.
Later, Herscovitch said the way the young people had been characterized during the discussion was frustrating.
“I want us to stop demonizing these children,” she said. “Kids are going to respond to their environments.”
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, drew from her experience in early childhood education, saying that when she was seeing discipline problems, she would rearrange the classroom to give the young children more autonomy or help them gain control over themselves.
“We need a new environment; we need different training or additional training,” she told Katz. “You’re doing all this work adding clinical staff; [it’s] really important, but I don’t think anything’s going to compare to a different physical plant. I think we’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole right now.”
“I hear everybody’s trying to do the right thing for kids, but the way it’s going now is just not working,” she said.
But Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, co-chair of the legislature’s Committee on Children, said that while she’s sensitive to what trauma can do to children, it’s important to view those in the juvenile jails from a variety of perspectives, including how they got there. That’s important to consider before deciding to close a facility, she said.
“They’re here because there’s been really, really serious crimes that they’ve participated in, in addition to the fact that they’re there because they’ve been victims in their lives,” Bartolomeo said.
Walker offered a stern response.
“We do not expect the easy kids to walk into CJTS…but no matter who they are, we have an obligation to serve them and serve them appropriately,” she said.
And Walker said she hoped the issues raised during the meeting would be addressed in the next three to four months, rather than continuing to discuss them for years.
“We can’t keep moving down the road and saying we’re going to get to it,” she said.