On Wednesday, advocates held a Zoom conference calling on Connecticut to reduce the number of children and young adults in the state’s adult prisons and juvenile detention centers so they would not have to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic from a locked cell.
Two days later, the warden of Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire — a facility is currently under federal investigation for its confinement of children whose cases are transferred to the adult legal system — said there are currently six children there whom officials consider “medically compromised,” meaning they have chronic underlying health conditions like asthma or diabetes that put them at higher risk of complications should they contract the virus – but that so far, none have.
“We are we are having great success right now with no symptomatic members of the population,” said Derrick Molden, the prison warden. “The people that are in the observation cottage are simply as a precaution and for safety measures right now, to observe them.”
Molden said seven children have been released from Manson in the past week. But their discharges, following standard protocol, have been in the works for the past six months. Additionally, the department is working with its Community Release Unit to identify those who are eligible for discharge who can be further supervised in their home neighborhoods. DOC is reviewing candidates who are community release-approved for a 45-day reentry furlough, a power granted to Commissioner Rollin Cook by statute.
Staff is dealing with the coronavirus threat by creating quarantine areas, Molden explained Friday via Zoom to members of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee’s executive team.
Those suspected of having the virus are moved in seven-day chunks to different sections of the prison. They are first sent to an isolation unit and, if they do not show any symptoms for a week, they are moved to a different section for people who are symptom-free but still quarantined. If they do not show any symptoms for seven more days, they are sent back to general population.
There are 12 children or young adults currently under observation at Manson, said Molden. Those dozen are either new admissions to the prison or had been seen by a medical professional who tested positive for the virus but wore personal protective equipment when they treated the youths.
As of April 3, there were 128 sentenced adults and eight sentenced children at Manson, according to figures provided on Friday’s call. There were also 140 adults and 36 minors who had not been sentenced for a crime being held there, a population whose release, Molden said, would depend on the Judicial Branch, since their cases had not been resolved and their criminal charges were still outstanding.
In addition to quarantine areas, the facility has made some internal concessions to the new reality in the time of COVID-19. There are individualized exercise programs and frequent mental health check-ins. Residents are allowed two free weekly phone calls and the freedom to purchase as many snacks from the commissary as their funds can sustain.
“We’re just trying to do everything we can to ensure a sense of normalcy for the population during this time,” said Molden.
Each incarcerated person is allowed to make two free phone calls every week, a concession officials made so they could stay in touch with their families as they wait out the global pandemic, since all visitors have been banned. Molden said there were 1,453 additional phone calls made in the first few days after some of the calls were made free.
“That’s a positive sign that people are still continuing to communicate with their families,” he said, noting that a change in law would be required for inmates to be allowed to make unlimited free phone calls.
The warden said officials are working to give incarcerated youth access to video teleconferencing so they can remain connected to their families, especially important given that visits have been indefinitely suspended.
“That’s something that is on top priority for us right now,” said Molden.