Manson Youth Institution
Manson Youth Institution, located in Cheshire.

Boys and young men at Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire have been mostly confined to their cells since Nov. 19 due to an outbreak of COVID-19, the state child advocate said Thursday.

To mitigate the spread of the virus, youths are spending most of their time locked in their cells, raising the advocate’s concern about access to mental health resources, group rehabilitative programming and school instruction.

“I understand the need for safety protocols, but I remain concerned about reliance on so much isolation, cell confinement,” said Sarah Eagan, the state’s Child Advocate. “There’s no rehabilitative groups. There’s no in-person school.”

There were 305 males being held at Manson as of Dec. 1, 263 of whom are between the ages of 18 and 21; 42 were younger than age 18.

Eagan said she was especially concerned about the low vaccination rate at the youth prison. She said just six of the 42 minors currently there have been vaccinated against COVID-19, or about 14%, along with roughly 90 young adults, or about 34% of those age 18 to 21.

Just over 5,000 prisoners across the correction system have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The vaccine hesitancy at MYI is no different than the hesitancy we see in the community.  There are people who don’t trust the vaccine, believing it wasn’t properly vetted, and others having confidence that they will be fine even if they contract the virus,” Karen Martucci, the Department of Correction’s Director of External Affairs, said in a statement. “We have placed a strong focus on education. Our latest efforts include utilizing trained incarcerated people that are certified nursing assistants (CNA) to speak with the population. The peer to peer connection has proved to be powerful in similar initiatives.”

Martucci said one difference between the incarcerated population and those in the community is that prisoners are tested every other week.

“You won’t see that in the community or any school system,” Martucci said. “This testing regiment reduces spread by quickly identifying cases. We know that asymptomatic people are spreading the virus without knowing.”

DOC employees continue to lag in vaccination rates and have the highest rates of opting for testing over the vaccine. The agency also has the highest rate of employee non-compliance with the governor’s vaccination mandate.

Martucci said Manson Youth Institution had transitioned to a COVID-19 “Phase 3 Operational Plan,” the highest of its three-phase plan to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“With approval from the Deputy Commissioner, each facility has the ability to transition between phases to increase or decrease activity based on the number of individuals testing positive for COVID-19,” Martucci said.

Modifying operations within prisons can include bringing food to the housing units, instead of allowing the incarcerated to eat in dining halls; shrinking available out-of-cell activities to just include showers and phone calls; exchanging school work with teachers within housing units instead of going to the classroom for lessons; rapid-testing workers to ensure they can continue their jobs in the kitchen; and providing medical and mental health visits within the housing units unless it’s necessary to see a patient in the medical unit.

“It is important to note that this is the first time that Manson Youth has transitioned to phase 3 based on COVID positivity since the onset of the pandemic and we always seek to downgrade within the phases as soon as we can safely do so,” said Martucci. “When the community witnesses an uptick in COVID cases, we are likely to see the same. A phased approach to safely managing the pandemic is utilized in the state of Connecticut and communities across the country. Although temporary modifications are necessary at individual locations when we see an increase in numbers, the fact that our positivity rate has remained consistently below that of the community is a good sign that the combination of our operational phases, vaccination clinics, rigorous testing protocols, deep cleaning and mask mandates is working.  The goal here is to keep people healthy and safe.”

But advocates remain worried about the potential adverse effects of such prolonged isolation.

“I continue to be gravely concerned because what we know is that the young people there are spending the majority of their time in their cells. We’re back in a situation where they’re essentially de-facto experiencing solitary confinement as a result of conditions that are beyond their control,” said Marisa Halm, the director of the Team Child Youth Justice Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy.

Over the summer, the state reached an agreement with Halm and other lawyers to improve education and mental health services at Manson. One major part of that agreement involved an understanding that the DOC would make WiFi available at the prison and make its “best efforts” to ensure a local online learning platform was in place for students by Sept. 15, 2021.

That didn’t happen, according to Halm.

“My understanding is that the Wi-Fi capacity is established, but there’s no learning platform in place,” Halm said. “One of the big pieces was that there would be some sort of platform in place so that virtual learning and some sort of synchronous education could be conducted if the traditional school was not in session.”

That means students have to rely on educational packets in order to learn while they’re kept in their cells to protect them from COVID. Halm said the packets used earlier in the pandemic were not individualized. Because many of the young people at Manson have learning disabilities, Halm said, giving them a packet and expecting them to do the work without being able to ask teachers questions or get guidance does not work well.

“It’s not a meaningful learning opportunity,” she said.

Then there’s the issue of access to mental health support.

“We’re concerned that mental health services are, again, being relegated to these cell-side check-ins, as opposed to more meaningful therapeutic sessions,” said Halm.

Many of Halm’s clients have told her they feel like the mental health professionals who walk through their housing units are just there to make their rounds, not provide individualized support.

“It’s like a fly-by, a drive-by,” Halm said. “If they’re really struggling, the manner in which they’re allowed to engage just isn’t going to provide for a true therapeutic interchange.”

Manson is one of the many congregate institutions the state runs that house high-risk, high-need individuals, Eagan said, highlighting the need for Connecticut to have an inter-agency public health group that offers guidance to state agencies that serve similar populations, “so that they are comparing lessons learned, public health protocols, disease mitigation strategies that do not rely exclusively on isolation.”

Eagan said that group could share strategies for public health education to encourage children, young adults and their parents to get vaccinated as a way of maximizing vaccination rates in the prison system.

“Our job is to review, investigate where needed, publish and advocate for making sure kids get what they need, even in the context of a public health crisis,” Eagan said. “A COVID outbreak in a concentrated environment is a public health crisis, I won’t minimize that — and the safety of staff, teachers and youth is very important. But making sure that that can be achieved in a manner that is consistent with public health expertise, and the developmental mental health needs of children, is extremely important.”

A mother with a child incarcerated at Manson told the CT Mirror in an email that she is worried about her son.

“He sounds really down and defeated. He sleeps a lot. He’s bored,” the mother said, adding that she considers him lucky because the family can afford a tablet on which he can watch movies. “These kids that have nothing … literally just sit there, doing nothing.”

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.