The 18-year-old didn’t want to be in jail, he told Department of Correction officials one day in 2019, as he covered the window in his cell with a sheet and mattress. He wanted to be with his family.
He was being held in a “Restrictive Housing Unit” at Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, confined to his cell for up to 23.5 hours each day. He was upset and wasn’t responding to efforts by prison staff to calm him. Instead, he threatened to hang himself.
Staff members pepper-sprayed him and put him in restraints, shackling his wrists and feet.
“That is not a mental health response to a youth with significant mental health needs,” said Sarah Eagan, the state’s Child Advocate. “That is a correctional response.”
The Office of the Child Advocate recounted the teenager’s experience in a report it released Tuesday morning. The 75-page document examines the conditions of confinement for youth and young adults up to age 21 incarcerated in Manson Youth and York Correctional Institutions.
Among the key findings is that the adult prison system is not an appropriate place for minors — despite prison administrators’ strides in implementing restorative justice circles in units where children are confined, increasing minors’ access to recreational activities and ending their long-term solitary confinement.
“Most youth entering the prison system have significant histories of unmet needs, abuse and neglect, psychiatric disabilities and substance abuse disorders. They may lack a consistent guardian, adequate housing and community support,” the report reads. “Yet, the prison system’s methods of intervention are rooted in traditional corrections practice and not in best practices for serving children and youth with complex mental health, education and child welfare histories.”
Due to the racial disparities in the state’s incarcerated population, Eagan’s investigation focused mostly on the experiences of Black youths, since they make up about 60% of youths age 15 to 21 at Manson, and 55% of young people at York.
The yawning chasm between the developmental needs of children and youth and prison practices is most apparent in the Child Advocate’s findings regarding the use of pepper spray, frequent or prolonged confinement in cells, inadequate mental health services and restraint, and pepper-spray use on young people experiencing a mental health crisis.
The Child Advocate credited the DOC’s efforts at reforming its practices at Manson and York after its 2019 report but said the lack of rehabilitative services and harmful isolation practices “continue to create serious and even dire concerns that state policy-makers must urgently address.”
Those policymakers, the report states, “must determine what the purpose of the correctional system is, whether it functions to control, punish or to rehabilitate youth,” and consider the implications of that purpose for “future reforms and investments.”
The report claims the limitations are structural problems of the adult correctional model, an assertion the DOC intimated in its responses to the report. DOC staff told the Child Advocate that having a more rehabilitative focus would be better but staff lack the resources because of all the other duties they have. And existing department policies were crafted with adults, not youths, in mind.
As one administrator told investigators, “everything that we do here that works goes against DOC directive.”
Eagan stressed that the department is fulfilling the function it’s charged with, pushing back against any notion that the Child Advocate is locked in an adversarial relationship with the state’s prison system.
“If there’s somebody who is responsible, it’s the state,” Eagan said. “Seismic changes are needed to make it rehabilitative for youth of any age.”
Pepper spray and mental health services
Thirty-three youths, aged 18 to 21, were pepper-sprayed at Manson in 2019. In the same timeframe, there were 364 instances of young adults placed into segregation in the facility’s Restrictive Housing Unit.
Between Feb. 11 and Nov. 6, 2019, 18 boys were pepper-sprayed during almost a dozen incidents. Twelve were Black, and several had psychiatric disabilities or asthma.
In response to a draft of the report, the DOC said the Child Advocate “ignores the fact that while MYI does house juveniles, it is an adult correctional facility, and the practices and standards that govern juvenile facilities, by definition, do not apply to it.” The incarcerated population at Manson includes minors whose crimes were serious enough for them to be put in the adult justice system.
Eagan’s report also examined mental health services for incarcerated youths. The DOC assigns people admitted to correctional facilities a mental health score between 1 and 5. Higher numbers indicate greater needs.
The Child Advocate found that the DOC classified the majority of children at Manson as having mental health scores of 1 or 2, indicating they did not have a history of mental health treatment or did not currently have clinical needs. About a third were given a score of 3, meaning they had some need for mental health contact.
As a result, two-thirds of the boys incarcerated at Manson during the period of review participated in no more than one mental health program during the duration of their incarceration. Still, more boys participated in substance abuse programming during 2019 than in other periods of review by the Child Advocate.
Aside from two children who were at Manson for less than a month, the 66 boys were locked up for about eight months, on average.
Even though most children did not have high mental health needs, according to the DOC, the Child Advocate found that almost all youths who didn’t participate in programming during their incarceration had had clinical diagnoses, most commonly conduct disorder, cannabis abuse, and ADD or ADHD.
The Child Advocate pulled records for all youths held at Manson between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2019. “More than half of boys’ families were the subject of four or more DCF investigations of child abuse or neglect,” the report reads, “and approximately one-third of boys’ families had been investigated by DCF 10 or more times for child mistreatment.”
In addition, the Child Advocate found that 65% of boys incarcerated at Manson had a parent with a prior criminal history or who spent time locked up.
The DOC told the Child Advocate that it does not have access to all of a child’s records when they are admitted to prison. The department will seek a statutory change so they can access youth’s records with the Department of Children and Families to better assess youth’s individual treatment.
One of the major findings from last year’s Child Advocate report involved the use of isolation, sometimes solitary confinement, as a way to house some incarcerated youths.
Since August 2019, no children — that is, youths under 18 — at Manson have been placed on Security Risk Group status, a months-long form of isolation for young people who are identified as part of a gang.
Another, shorter-term form of restrictive status is known as “confined to quarters,” or CTQ, where youths were isolated in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. Minors were subjected to this confinement if they fought, possessed contraband or threatened their peers or staff. Several children were held on the status on multiple occasions.
In the 2019 calendar year, there were 135 instances of minors under 18 placed into placed into a restrictive housing unit once they were put on CTQ status. The range of a single instance of such confinement was between one and 15 days.
The Child Advocate’s close examination of a three-month period at the end of 2019 found that just three of 32 children on CTQ participated in a full day of school during their confinement. Absence from school and rehabilitative programming was the norm. Their time in their cell ranged from 18 to 23 hours a day.
In their response, the DOC disagreed with the Child’s Advocate assertion that it subjects children to isolation.
“There are no youth incarcerated at MYI who have only minimal meaningful contact with others and access to few or no programs,” the DOC said, stating that no practices there “meet the [National Commission on Correctional Health Care’s] definition of solitary confinement.”
There were 364 instances of young adults, or those between the ages of 18 and 21, placed in restrictive housing in 2019. Those held on this status are isolated in their cells for up to 23.5 hours a day; the majority of young people subjected to the confinement were isolated for one to two weeks at a time, but many young people were placed in Restrictive Housing Units multiple times over the course of the year.
“OCA continues to be deeply concerned about isolation practices for youth at MYI, and OCA urges immediate attention by policy-makers to these matters,” the report states.
The Child Advocate’s analysis of girls in the adult prison system was based on a smaller sample size: There were five minor girls held at York Correctional Institution, the state’s prison for women and girls, in 2019. Four of them were Black. None were subjected to pepper spray. None were held on held on long-term administrative segregation status.
Living conditions at York differ vastly from those at Manson. Girls are held in apartment-like housing units, not cells, which have a common area that has a television and books, a shower space and laundry. Each living area has an accessible outdoor area.
All of the girls were classified as having a mental health score of at least 3. Four of the girls participated in multiple rehabilitative programs.
Pepper spray was used on five young women, age 18 to 21, in 2019. Three of those instances took place in York’s mental health unit; two deployments were used to stop youths from hurting themselves, according to the report.
In one instance, officials sprayed an 18-year-old who had been cutting herself with a spork. She made an “aggressive movement” toward a supervisor, was pepper-sprayed and placed in restraints for two hours.
Many of the report’s recommendations involve empowering the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, of which Eagan is a member, to review standards of service at Manson and York. The report suggests JJPOC members should visit Restrictive Housing Unit and CTQ cells at York and Manson, so they are intimately familiar with the infrastructure of confinement and programming for children and young adults.
Other recommendations included ending the DOC’s use of pepper spray and isolation on youths engaging in self harm, reviewing the delivery of mental health services, and charging JJPOC with proposing lawmakers change the law so youths up to age 21 aren’t held in prolonged isolation or an unclean environment.
Eagan also proposed that DOC provide JJPOC members with conditions of confinement for incarcerated people up to age 21, not just minors, held at York and Manson.
“What changes at age 17 and 364 days, and the next day?” Eagan asked. “It’s a lot of the same kids, a lot of the same needs.”
The report didn’t just focus on conditions of incarceration for 15- to 21-year-olds in the year following the 2019 OCA report; it also tracks prison conditions for the same age group following the state’s COVID-19 shutdown in March.
“The facility did successfully maintain a low infection rate among staff and youth, and OCA found that this was at least partly attributable to the shutdown of facility programming and a reliance on a prolonged and alarming degree of cell confinement for all youth age 15 to 21 over a period of several months,” the report reads.
Fewer than 50 boys were held at Manson between March and July 2020, as well as about 200 young adults up to age 21. There were only two girls held at York in the same timeframe, and approximately 20 young women up to age 21.
The Child Advocate kept in touch with incarcerated young people via phone during the beginning of the pandemic and visited Manson three times over the summer. In a visit on June 5, the Child Advocate learned most of the youths had not turned in any school work over the first three months of COVID-19.
Youths told the Child Advocate in phone interviews that officials slid homework under their cell doors every few weeks between March and June. Most said they were unable or unwilling to do the work on their own. They reported that they didn’t meet with support staff to review or complete their work. They frequently asked when they could go back to school, the report says, explaining that it was a high priority for them, “in part because it was an opportunity to be out-of-cell for several hours a day.”
The Department paused all in-person programming at York between March and August. With no schooling or other structured programming activities, minors under 18 were held in their cells for up to 22.5 hours a day.
Youth between the ages of 18 and 21 were held in their cells for 22 to 23 hours each day. Some of the young adults were allowed out of their cells for work, which mostly involves janitorial duties or food distribution.
In their response to the Child Advocate’s report, the DOC cited its low rates of infection at Manson and that its policies were implemented in accordance with public health guidelines.
“[A]s more information became available regarding COVID-19, some of the restrictions were reduced and the members of the inmate population were allowed more movement,” the department told the Child Advocate.
Prison officials at Manson deployed pepper spray eight times between March and July. There were at least four children who were sprayed, three of whom have asthma.
There were more than 30 confined to quarters, and 61 restrictive housing unit sanctions issued from March to July. The Child Advocate noted that several youths told their office they did not have access to showers or hygiene products. In response, the DOC said all incarcerated people can request hygiene products, shower shoes and undergarments.
“Moving forward, to minimize confusion, and to ensure that inmates on CTQ status have toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, soap and towel available at all times, I have pre-set the CTQ cells with those items,” a DOC staff member told the Child Advocate.
The DOC said all incarcerated individuals are still permitted an hour out of their cells each day and can attend out-of-cell programming, except “those members of the population who pose an immediate threat of harm to themselves or others.”
Youth placed on CTQ restriction still have “meaningful contact with staff throughout the day and are able to leave their cells to attend programs and interact with other inmates. They also have access to appropriate mental health care,” the DOC said.
The Child Advocate reviewed 85 records of youths up to age 21 incarcerated at Manson during the beginning of the pandemic who were given mental health scores of 3 or 4. The records showed that mental health clinicians conducted daily “tours,” meaning they checked in with them for 15 minutes from their cell window. Individual mental health sessions also frequently took place in these cell-side visits.
Not all check-ins were meaningful interactions. The Child Advocate’s review of health records found that staff classified cell-side check-ins where youths were sleeping or refused to come to the door as “brief encounters” or “SOAP notes,” which are supposed to reflect individual psychotherapy sessions.
“There is minimal opportunity for youth to clinically engage and be reliably assessed and supported through their prison cell window,” the report states. “During this time in particular when children were not offered school or daily activities, the lack of adequate clinical engagement with most youth was alarming.”
The DOC acknowledged that such check-ins are not ideal for comprehensive treatment but said they “do provide an opportunity for an inmate to access care and express concerns and for the clinician to assess any urgent or emergency concerns.”
The OCA made eight recommendations specific to COVID-19. The proposals include ensuring access to small group instruction, developing educational opportunities in the evening and during the day, broadening internet access and computers to support education, and providing all youths up to 21 with free phone calls so they can contact their families without having to pay hefty fees. The report also calls on all state agencies managing youths in congregate settings to develop standards for infection control that maximize young people’s access to developmentally appropriate living conditions while ensuring public health precautions are in place.
“We can’t keep people locked up like that all the time,” Eagan said. “The coronavirus is a real concern … we still cannot leave young people in their cells this long, this much, without wreaking other kinds of havoc for them.”