Scathing report on conditions for imprisoned youth
Child Advocate says system of incarcerating youth needs 'massive overhaul'
The Office of the Child Advocate released a scathing report Wednesday morning on the substandard conditions in state facilities for imprisoned and detained youth and called for an overhaul of the system.
The child advocate’s office found that incarcerated youths, particularly boys who have complex needs and are imprisoned in the adult correctional system, are the most likely to lose meaningful access to education, rehabilitative services and visits with family, and are more likely to to be placed in isolation. In some cases, the report said, the conditions for youth may violate state and federal law.
The report details the individual cases of incarcerated youth, including one boy who was confined for 23.5 hours a day with no access to education or adequate mental health services, and another who was sprayed with a chemical agent despite his asthma diagnosis and restrained face-down.
The year-long investigation found that minority youth “remain disproportionately confined and incarcerated in Connecticut’s state-run facilities” and that “the deeper youth go into the correctional system, the less likely they are to receive any developmentally appropriate programming — supports necessary to help youth change their behavior and successfully discharge back to their communities without committing new offenses.”
Mickey Kramer, the associate child advocate, said in an interview Tuesday that the report’s findings prove that Connecticut needs “a massive overhaul” in the way it both evaluates and meets the needs of incarcerated youth.
“Essentially, we believe there is a moral imperative to address the current circumstances …,” Kramer continued. “When we believe and know that certain things that we do to kids are harmful, we’ve got to stop doing those things.”
The report examined the state’s juvenile detention centers in Bridgeport and Hartford, which are operated by the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division; the Manson Youth Institution for boys and the York Correctional Institution for girls, which are Department of Corrections’ prisons that house minors; and the former Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS), a locked facility for boys that was operated by the state Department of Children and Families until it closed in April 2018. For the full report, click here.
The lack of uniform standards across these facilities can place youth and facility staff at risk of harm, the report says, and may result in some cases “in violations of state and federal law and deeply concerning conditions of confinement, particularly for minors in the adult prison system.”
The advocate’s report said that for incarcerated youth, there are few and in some cases, no “universal standards” in Connecticut law or agency practices regarding mental health services, the use of isolation or force, strategies to prevent suicide, education, or family engagement.
The investigation, which was mandated by the legislature, examined the year between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017 and included a review of records, observations at the facilities, and interviews with youths.
The report takes each facility separately and analyzes key issues affecting the youth — including suicidal behavior and prevention, the use of restraints and isolation, the availability of rehabilitative programming, access to educational programming, access to family visits and family therapy, and the reporting and prevention of child abuse.
This report is released as the state grapples with how to handle youth who break the law. In April 2018, the state closed its lone prison for youth who are convicted of offenses not serious enough to land them in the adult correction system — CJTS — which has left more youth lingering in pre-trial detention facilities not equipped for long-term stays.
Two of the agencies targeted in the report — DCF and DOC – issued a joint response Wednesday afternoon: “With the support of Governor Lamont, we look forward to working collaboratively across state agencies, with stake holders, and especially with the Office of the Child Advocate to address the concerns raised in the report, with the ultimate goal of improving our criminal justice system for everyone.”
‘Nathan’s’ story at Manson Youth Institution
The investigators found the most disturbing conditions at Manson Youth Institution. While the prison houses boys and young men up to the age of 21, the child advocate focused on the approximately 55 boys from the ages of 15 to 17.
To illustrate how a child with complex needs is not getting needed services, the advocate’s report told the story of “Nathan,” an African-American teenager from one of Connecticut’s urban areas, who was incarcerated at 16 at Manson Youth on multiple felonies at the time of the investigation.
Nathan’s involvement with the justice system began years earlier, however, when he was only 8 years old and the subject of a truancy petition. By age 10, Nathan was placed on juvenile probation after a charge for breach of peace for fighting.
“A review of Nathan’s story shows time after time that when he needed or asked for help, he didn’t get it or didn’t get enough,” the report said. “Throughout his young life, Nathan’s family was the subject of more than 16 reports to DCF alleging abuse and neglect of Nathan and other children in the family home.”
By the time Nathan was 14, he had been incarcerated in juvenile detention five times and showed signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and was struggling with “behavioral control, suicidal ideation, peer and staff relationships and frequent refusal to engage in school.” He was confined to his room or physically restrained many times.
Later, he was discharged to CJTS in Middletown, where he was placed on suicide watch several times for threatening to hurt himself or others. He also was placed in restraints and seclusion many times.
Nathan was anxious about leaving CJTS and within three months of his discharge he was arrested again and transferred to Manson, where he has continued to struggle with behavioral control, suicidal thoughts, and aggression. He has been placed multiple times in restrictive housing at Manson that confines him to his quarters for 23.5 hours per day with no access to school or rehabilitative programming. He has accumulated 70 days in isolation in nine months.
Despite Nathan’s history of mental health needs, the report says, records indicate that over a two-month period, when he was placed in isolation on many occasions, the 17-year-old was seen for “brief mental status checks” but not for individual therapy or other clinical programming.
“Nathan is a classic example of a youth who is identified relatively early in childhood, as having complex needs and coming from a complex family,” said Kramer. “That’s part of what we’re trying to say. None of the systems that the child touched effectively addressed his unique needs. He went through the criminal justice system over a long period of time with unmet needs.”
The report also tells the story of Terrance, who was restrained by several officers after refusing to return to his cell at Manson in May 2018.
“He was sprayed with a chemical agent twice and ultimately restrained in the prone (face down) position,” the report says. “During the course of being restrained by the officers, the youth swung at staff, striking a staff member.”
The report said that following the prone restraint and the use of the chemical agent, the youth could be heard on video tape saying repeatedly that he could not breathe and that he had asthma.
The advocate said the youth’s medical record confirmed a diagnosis of asthma and a prescribed inhaler.
The report said that corrections staff could be seen in the video, moving the youth briefly to the shower to wash his face off while he salivated and continued to state he was having trouble breathing.
“At no time during the incident or its aftermath does it appear the youth’s vital signs were checked and there is no record that the youth was provided with an inhaler,” the report says. “The initial medical incident report states that ‘no complaints [were] reported by inmate; no marks or injuries noted.'”
However, the report notes that on video, the youth “could be heard telling the mental health clinician that he was afraid he was going to die.”
The report said that the boys with complex needs who need the most help are “counterintuitively” most likely to go without it in the adult prison system. They are also the most likely to be placed in prolonged physical and social isolation while imprisoned — a practice that can have “devastating” impacts, including suicide.
“If we say that in the schools or hospitals or in treatment settings that isolation and seclusion are harmful practices, how can we think differently just because it’s a different setting?” Kramer asked. “It’s the practice that’s harmful.”
In its response to the advocate, which was included in the report, the Department of Correction said that it “remains committed to working with stakeholders seeking to improve outcomes and conditions of confinement for youth.”
The DOC noted, however, that its policies and practices are “consistent with best practice for adult correctional programs” and while they have made some effort to meet the needs of the youngest offenders, the agency believes “youth would be better served outside of an adult correction system.”
The agency also said that the youngest offenders often present with the most challenging behaviors and restrictive measures are used to ensure staff safety and security.
Juvenile detention facilities are ‘challenged’
An examination of the state’s juvenile detention centers, which are located in Bridgeport and Hartford, found that while the Judicial Branch has instituted some “developmentally appropriate and progressive policies for youth, attention to facilities operations and compliance” with the agency’s policies “remains an urgent priority for further review.”
During the period reviewed, the Court Support Services Division reported 688 incidents of youth placed on suicide watch status and 41 occurrences where constant observation was needed to support actively suicidal youth.
The support services division also reported that, on average, 11.5 percent of incarcerated youth were physically restrained during the investigation period. The report said that while the agency’s policy calls for a “sparing use” of room confinement, the child advocate found several examples of physical isolation for behavior management during the period reviewed.
The advocate found that the support services division is challenged in meeting treatment requirements for youth with profound mental health treatment needs while in custody and whose stays are longer than average. The agency was not able to provide the advocate with data on its rehabilitative and group programming. The report said that the division has since added this to their data management system and will be able to report on it in the future.
The report also tells the story of Tiffany, a child committed to DCF due to child abuse and sexual assault who was placed in detention several times.
As she grew up, the report said, Tiffany moved back and forth between foster homes, residential programs and inpatient treatment and was eventually diagnosed with “reactive attachment disorder, complex trauma and persistent depression.”
Tiffany was admitted to detention three times in 2016 and 2017, where she was subject to multiple physical restraints and room confinement. And while Tiffany did have check-ins with mental health staff, the report found that her detention “support plan was not a comprehensive treatment plan designed to address her unmet needs and complex trauma history.”
In its response to the advocate included in the report, the Court Support Services Division leadership reported “confidence in its screening and short-term assessment policies and practices,” emphasizing that pretrial detention is typically short term has “significant limitations regarding mental health treatment and has not been considered a treatment environment.”
Not all of the youth living in the detention centers are there for the short-term, however. The closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School resulted in the transfer of its entire population into the detention centers — a population that typically requires longer incarceration and more intensive treatment.
“The Judicial Branch looks forward to working with the Office of Child Advocate to improve in the areas of the report in which the OCA has identified opportunities for improvement” said Gary Roberge, executive director of CSSD, in a statement Wednesday morning, adding that its centers are nationally accredited. “The Judicial Branch’s Juvenile Residential Services staff do an outstanding job of working with the juveniles we serve each and every day.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3:23 p.m.