As the number of juveniles falling ill with COVID-19 in the state’s detention centers climbs, calls for state officials to release children to safer environments have taken on a new urgency.
Three youth at the juvenile detention center in Hartford have tested positive for the disease, while three tests were still pending Thursday. The Judicial Branch, which oversees the state’s two detention centers, has closed admissions to the Hartford facility, routing all new admissions to Bridgeport.
In addition to the juveniles in detention, advocates are also concerned about the young inmates whose cases have been transferred to the adult prison system. Those youth are incarcerated at Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, which holds males ages 15-21, and York Correctional Institution in Niantic, a women’s prison.
On Wednesday, Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, called on Gov. Ned Lamont to show the same “strong, decisive leadership” for incarcerated youth during this time of crisis that’s guided decisions that affect schools, businesses, and other impacted industries.
Anderson made her remarks during a conference call Wednesday with advocates and lawmakers.
“He has the ability to charge the executive branch agencies to work with each other and the judicial branch to create individualized plans,” Anderson said, “to make sure that each youth’s housing, health, education, mental health and recreational needs are met within the community.”
Some of those agencies, according to Anderson, include the departments of labor, housing, children and families, developmental services, and social services.
“We need to be able to make sure that it is a priority that comes from the executive level that says to the commissioners of all of these departments, so that if and when the Department of Corrections is trying to get them out of Manson [Youth Institution] and they come against a roadblock,” Anderson said, “…the agency that would be required to figure that out has gotten word from Lamont that says —‘ Yes, prioritize figuring that out.”
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said he wants to see a more robust, specific plan from the Lamont administration.
“What we’re talking about is even beyond that — is there more you are willing to do? Can do? And if the answer is yes, lay it out in a plan so we know what it is,” he said. “I think that if the governor stands up and speaks, people will follow, not just the general public.”
Lamont could play a crucial role in spearheading a reduction in the prison population, Michael P. Lawlor, the under secretary of criminal justice policy and planning for former Gov. Dannell Malloy, said on Wednesday’s call. Lamont could stand on the steps of the Capitol with the state’s chief criminal judge, the chief state’s attorney, some of the major city police chiefs, and the head of the police chief’s association and say “‘In this time of crisis, we encourage everyone who works with us, to limit the number of incarcerations as much as possible.’”
Lawlor said when his old boss, a national leader on criminal justice reform, talked, others listened.
“It had a big impact on the very front lines,” Lawlor said. “And I think that is what is missing here. It’s not a criticism because I think they are actually trying to do their best, but I think people need to hear this message loudly and clearly, people who are doing this work every single day, in the prisons, in the jails, in the parole board, in the police stations, in the probation and parole offices.”
As of Thursday evening, the Lamont administration had not responded to a request for comment.
Juvenile Detention centers’ ‘new reality’
In an interview conducted before any juveniles in detention had tested positive for COVID-19, officials said they were working to spare minors from having to weather the pandemic from inside a locked detainment facility, separated from their families and communities.
“These are extraordinary circumstances,” said Gary Roberge, the executive director of the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division, on March 26. “We’re exploring any and all possibilities to limit the number of kids in our detention facilities.”
Releasing children to step-down facilities after they complete programming in the juvenile detention centers has proven particularly difficult because of COVID-19, said Catherine Foley Geib, deputy director of juvenile clinical and educational services. Some minors who had been scheduled for release to a residential treatment program had their discharge plans upended because COVID-19 illnesses on site had suspended those programs’ admissions.
“So many of the community resources are not available in the manner which we would expect them to be or want them to be,”Geib said. “Everyone’s been told to socially distance, so a lot of programs have shut their door, and are either completely closed or only working with clients remotely over the phone.”
Those who remain in the detention centers have been given educational coursework, said Geib, and are allowed outside to exercise. Officials try to limit the size of the groups to ensure the children and staff aren’t crowded together.
Geib said officials are trying to increase children’s access to phone calls so they can stay connected to their families, despite the suspension of visitation. But video conferencing is tricky, she said, because family members would have to travel to a juvenile court in Hartford or Bridgeport to video conference with their child, since the equipment at the detention centers can only connect with the video conferencing equipment at the courthouses, thanks to internet security and connection issues.
“We definitely have to practice as much social distancing in the facilities as we can,” Geib said. “We just try to accommodate to the new reality right now.”
Geib said each detention center has a housing unit specifically designated for quarantine. Children are checked for symptoms twice a day.
“Any child who is showing symptoms is moved to our isolation unit,” Geib said. Other youth who were in contact with someone suspected to have the virus would be quarantined in a space separate from the isolation unit, Geib said, “which doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t necessarily be in their room,” but their movement would be restricted, as would the extent of their interaction with others.
If a child is showing symptoms of COVID-19, Geib said the medical director has told her they will not discharge them.
“So that’s one of the questions on my list I have to review with the chief administrative judge,” she said. “What legal requirement is more significant at that point in time? Is it the medical legal requirements, public health requirements, versus the juvenile justice or juvenile court legal requirement to release a child? So, we would have to review that situation as it would occur but we haven’t had that situation yet.”
The Child Advocate weighs in
On March 24, Sarah Eagan, the state’s Child Advocate, sent a list of recommendations to Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook and Marc Pelka, Gov. Ned Lamont’s under secretary for criminal justice policy and planning, on how to safely reduce the state’s youth prison population at Manson Youth Institution, which houses boys and young adults up to age 22, and York Correctional Institution, which holds women and girls.
The memo asked that officials prioritize the immediate release of medically vulnerable youth, including those with COVID-19 symptoms or chronic illnesses. She also suggested authorities create an individualized transition plan to ensure discharged youth have a connection to a family member or responsible adult, and can access medical care and housing in the community once they’re released.
Eagan also suggested officials review the cases of minors and young adults up to age 21 as part of their prison reduction plan. Such a review could look at the cases of sentenced and pretrial youth, to evaluate whether they can safely be sent home.
Officials could also create criteria, Eagan said, to quickly release young adults and children who are already scheduled for release before the end of 2020. According to state data obtained by the Office of the Child Advocate, there were 54 people younger than 21 who are scheduled to be released by the end of the year, which is roughly 20% of the Manson Youth Institution’s population. As of April 1, there were 140 young adults or children incarcerated at Manson who had not been sentenced for their alleged crimes — just over half of the facility’s population.
Lawlor suggested doubling down on efforts to get youth stuck in detention centers back in court. Of the 49 incarcerated youth under the age of 18 in Manson Youth Institution, 39 are awaiting pre-trial motions.
Eagan said in an email that state officials were reviewing her recommendations and told her they would discuss them this Friday at an executive meeting of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee.
This story was jointly reported by CT Mirror reporter Kelan Lyons and Connecticut Public Radio reporter Ryan Lindsay.