Lawyers representing young people incarcerated in adult prison have reached an agreement with the state over the Department of Correction’s delivery of educational and mental health services to youth held at Manson Youth Institution as the pandemic wanes in correctional facilities across Connecticut.
The settlement, which is in place until Sept. 30, 2021, ensures the DOC will provide support to incarcerated young people after a year in which they were largely kept in their cells to protect them from COVID-19. Broadly, the accommodation deals with three topics: education, access to mental health and cell confinement in medical isolation and quarantine units.
“These are some of the most high-risk young people that we have here in the state of Connecticut. Many of them have experienced significant trauma in their past,” said Marisa Halm, the director of the TeamChild Youth Justice Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, which worked on the agreement alongside the National Center for Youth Law and the Juvenile Law Center.
The purpose of the agreement, Halm said, is to ensure those young people are not forgotten in the remainder of the pandemic and that they’re able to access appropriate mental health care and educational programming.
Another major part of the settlement involves the use of quarantine to protect youth from COVID-19.
“Medical isolation should not be the same thing as punitive isolation, but in operation, it has been,” said Halm.
In a statement, Attorney General William Tong said, “We’re fortunate we were able to reach an agreement without litigation that permits DOC to protect the health and safety of staff and inmates during the pandemic while continuing to provide appropriate education and health services to all inmates.”
Karen Martucci, the DOC’s director of external affairs, said in an email that the settlement “memorialized practices that were already in effect.” She said the agency stands ready to fulfill the obligations outlined in the settlement agreement.
“We remain committed to the safe and humane treatment of the juveniles and the incarcerated population as a whole,” Martucci said. “Agreements such as this represent the agency’s efforts to work with community advocates to meet our shared goals.”
As of June 1, there were 292 boys or young men incarcerated at Manson, more than half of whom were Black. Fewer than 40 of those there were minors. Most were 18 to 20 years old.
Manson has been relatively unscathed by COVID-19, compared to other correctional facilities. As of June 18, there were no asymptomatic cases there. With the exception of the now-closed Northern Correctional Institution, it had the fewest positive cases during the pandemic of the 14 prisons and jails in the state system. Just 32 young people there have tested positive for the virus.
Even if the pandemic appears to be waning, Halm said, it’s unclear whether there will be a resurgence of the virus in correctional facilities. But if the virus comes back in force, prisons and jails are especially vulnerable to an outbreak, since there are large numbers of people living in close quarters.
“Even though it’s unlikely we’ll get to the high numbers, if there is some sort of outbreak, it could be pretty significant for a smaller facility like Manson,” said Halm.
The settlement comes eight months after a report by the Child Advocate that found that Manson maintained a low infection rate among staff and youth in part due to a shutdown of the prison’s programming and the use of an “alarming degree” of cell confinement for all young people. Incarcerated youths told the advocate that officials slid homework under their cell doors every few weeks between March and June, but most were unable or unwilling to do the work on their own. They frequently asked when they could go back to school, the report states, 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 DOC responded to the report by presenting an action plan to the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee on how to adjust its conditions of confinement for 15- to 17-year-olds, said Sarah Eagan, the Child Advocate. The 18- to 21-year olds did not get the same level of review, she added.
“I do think they’re putting a lot of attention in trying to deal with the most concerning findings from the report,” Eagan said. “That does not mean that I think we’re where we need to be. We’re still leaps and bounds from a developmentally appropriate, really therapeutically and trauma-informed rehabilitation model. But there has definitely been attention to concerns about the minors and an effort to make improvements.”
The settlement requires the department to provide incarcerated minors working toward their high school degree with at least 25 hours of in-person instruction each week. Students of any age — the oldest of those held at Manson as of June 1 were 21 years old — who are eligible for special education services will receive the number of hours of education stated in their Individualized Education Programs. Other incarcerated students will get at least 15 hours of in-person instruction per week.
Students, teachers and support staff are to wear masks and socially distance at least three feet while in class. Manson staff will make "best efforts" to encourage un-vaccinated educational staff to get tested for COVID regularly.
Unified School District 1, a legally vested school district within the DOC that provides services at Manson Youth Institution, will review all IEPs of students with disabilities at least once a year, and assess all students' level of performance three times annually. It will give individualized feedback and progress monitoring to all students and ensure they have an opportunity to progress toward a high school diploma, GED or vocational education certificate.
Students in quarantine or medical isolation will be provided with remote education, individualized packets disbursed each day school is in session. Staff are to "strive to provide feedback on academics as often as possible."
The individualized packets are key, Halm said, because during the height of the pandemic the packets the youth received "were not individualized in any way," despite that at least about 40% of students at Manson have special needs.
The agreement notes that the DOC is installing WiFi access at Manson, and is making "best efforts" to ensure a local online learning platform is in place for students by Sept. 15, 2021.
WiFi could be an integral part of educating young people in quarantine, Halm said, since there isn't a good way to distribute educational packets and monitor them.
“It would make education so much more accessible and interactive and individualized, and provide the young people the opportunity to interact directly with their teachers," Halm said of a WiFi connection to the classroom.
Those in medical quarantine and isolation will get services “whenever it is possible to do so safely using social distancing and appropriate PPE, as long as recommended by the CDC.” When they can’t get that help, they’re to be given services through "another appropriate manner," including virtually or over the phone.
The state agreed to do two consultations to get input from corrections experts on how to safely limit the amount of time young people in medical quarantine or isolation spend in their cells. They will discuss how to increase the time youth spend outdoors and ways they can use tablets, computers and WiFi.
Last, officials will collect data each month and send it to attorneys for incarcerated youth. The information will include the total number of young people in medical quarantine and medical isolation, broken down by age; a description of the education provided to each age group during the time period; the number of days school was closed during the elapsed time and the reason why it was shut down; total school enrollment and each student’s monthly attendance; and the total number of mental heath contacts and group sessions.
The settlement includes protections for mental health care, as well. Unless a young person is in quarantine or medical isolation, the DOC must provide them in-person mental health services.
“Because of the heightened stress caused by the pandemic, youth under 18 will be seen at least twice per month in a private location to assess whether they have additional mental health needs to be addressed," the agreement states. For those classified as an MH3 or above, the DOC must give them services and assessments "consistent with their mental health treatment plan."
Mental health professionals are to tour the facility's housing units each week, during which youths can request additional support. If the mental health staff deems their request to be urgent, they are to speak with them the same day at a private location, meaning they will not provide a cell-side therapy session. If the matter is not urgent, they are to be seen within two business days.
The conditions of imprisonment are isolating even when there isn't a pandemic that leads to youth being locked in their cell for 23 hours a day, Eagan said.
"The cell confinement was extreme for the 15- to 21-year olds," she said. “No group programming, no family coming to see you; it’s hard to overstate the mental health toll that that would take on a young person."