Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire

Two years after opening an investigation into the conditions of confinement at Manson Youth Institution, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Tuesday that there is “reasonable cause” to believe that the Cheshire youth prison’s isolation practices and “inadequate mental health services” put children incarcerated there at risk of serious harm.

“Children in adult correctional facilities do not forfeit their constitutional and federal rights,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “Our investigation uncovered systemic evidence that children are deprived of the mental health and special education services they need to become productive, successful adults. When children misbehave, Manson frequently subjects them to harmful periods of isolation, despite evidence that children are uniquely vulnerable to the traumatic and lasting damage isolation causes.”
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said the office is “reviewing the report’s findings and will work with the Department of Correction and Department of Justice to address the issues raised in the report.”

Sarah Eagan, the state’s Child Advocate who has made similar findings in her own reports in years past, called the findings “a powerful report of sweeping magnitude.
“It’s sweeping and makes findings across the board that children’s civil rights and constitutional rights are violated in every way that they can be,” she said. “Having the Justice Department follow up our statutorily required investigation with a comprehensive investigation in its own element, and issue findings that mirror our findings, but that are defined in terms of civil rights violations, is an extremely important development in our state’s understanding of the rights of incarcerated children, the level of need that these children have for treatment and education support, and the obligation of the state to ensure those needs are met.”

The federal investigation focused on three issues: whether Manson’s isolation of children violated their constitutional rights, whether mental health services for children were constitutionally inadequate and whether Manson violated the rights of children with disabilities. After touring the correctional facility in January 2020, conducting dozens of interviews with staff, counselors and mental health clinicians, reviewing 31,000 pages of documents and conducting interviews via teleconference during the pandemic, investigators concluded that conditions at Manson violated minors’ Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Manson houses minors whose cases have been transferred to the adult justice system and young adults up to age 21. There were 42 children under 18 incarcerated there as of Dec. 1. Of the 305 children and young adults incarcerated at the prison at the beginning of the month, 171 were Black and 88 were Hispanic.

Eagan credited the Department of Justice for providing a demographic breakdown of the children housed at Manson during its investigation, finding that between 75% and 85% of children there identified as Black or Latinx.

“We have to vigorously evaluate why that continues to be the case and what it says about how the justice system interacts with Black children,” said Eagan.

The 27-page report notes that most of the minors at Manson have significant histories of learning disabilities and mental illnesses, yet they are not given the support they need to navigate the prison environment and develop skills to become productive, successful adults. When those children act out, they are often subjected to disciplinary isolation, regardless of whether their behavior is typical of adolescents.

The report details the experience of a boy named Ryan, who was admitted to Manson as a pretrial detainee when he was 15. Ryan experienced a significant amount of violence and abuse before he went to prison. He received high scores for anger, irritability, somatic complaints, thought disturbance and trauma during a mental health screening at intake.

“None of this information was adequately explored by mental health staff in determining Ryan’s mental health needs,” the report notes. “Instead, intake staff determined that he did not have any mental health issues that would require treatment.”

Before he was sent to prison, Ryan was classified as “emotionally disturbed” and received 10 hours of special education each week at his local school. But prison officials reduced Ryan’s special education services to just one hour per week, without any explanation why.

Ryan, meanwhile, exhibited behaviors like anxiety, irritability, anger and mania, potential symptoms of a serious mental illness. He got in trouble for infractions like fighting, assaults, threats and “interfering with safety and security.” He was punished in disciplinary isolation, where his mental health further deteriorated.

“But there is little evidence in Ryan’s record that mental health staff explored whether his misbehaviors were symptoms of serious mental illness and/or trauma that required treatment as opposed to punishment, notwithstanding ample evidence suggesting that he was, indeed, experiencing a serious mental illness and trauma,” the report concludes.

Manson’s disciplinary use of solitary confinement is known as “Confined to Quarters,” (CTQ) but federal investigators found that the children they spoke to, and even some staff, called it “The Box.” When a child commits a misbehavior that security deems worthy of being sent to CTQ, he is handcuffed, brought into the isolation unit, strip searched, given a jumpsuit and placed in an empty cell without any personal items.
The CTQ policy lays out a multi-step process where children progress through the program before they are taken out of isolation. The report notes that most children spend several days in solitary when sent to CTQ.

Children held on the two highest levels of the CTQ program are locked in a cell for at least 23 hours a day. Showers, phone calls and recreation all take place during the single hour they are out of their cell. They are not allowed to go to school or religious services, and they eat in their cells.

The report states that Manson sends children to CTQ “on a routine basis and often for relatively minor offenses,” which are often reflective of typical adolescent development. Most off the time, no one involved in the incident is hurt. The behaviors that lead to placement in CTQ are often related to unmet mental health or special education needs.

Federal authorities listed an array of actions that led to children being placed in CTQ, including using vulgar language, knocking workbooks to the floor during school and speaking loudly and using disrespectful words in an aggressive manner toward a teacher.

Children at Manson were seriously hurt as a result of the prison’s isolation practices. Ryan, for example, described hearing voices of people who weren’t there, a hallucination that got worse when he was in CTQ.”

In spite of serious deteriorations of his mental health while on CTQ, Ryan was placed there repeatedly, including, in at least one instance, immediately after being released from suicide watch,” the report says.

Mental health 

Federal investigators also found that Mason failed to conduct adequate mental health assessments, as staff do not consider relevant information like records, screening tools and interviews when assessing a child’s mental health needs. Instead, minors are diagnosed and given treatment plans based on adjusting to life in prison, regardless of how their mental health could impact their ability to function there. Then, children suffer the effects of untreated mental illness and then are subjected to isolation as punishment for behaviors that are symptomatic of their untreated illness, which DOC officials have failed to assess.

The report also concluded that Manson staff repeatedly miss or minimize signs of trauma. Later, when children act out because of their trauma, they are put in solitary confinement. Federal authorities made similar findings related to children with substance abuse issues or other psychiatric disorders.

In addition, the Department of Justice found that Manson reduces a child’s mental health score — a number on a scale of 1 to 5 assigned by the DOC that reflects an individual’s mental health needs — when they refuse treatment, and that the group therapy services that are available are geared towards adults, not children.

Special education

The last finding made by federal investigators deals with deficiencies related to Manson’s special education services. Prison officials routinely reduce students’ special education services without any explanation or justification, without taking into account the child’s individualized needs.

The report details several students’ experience of getting seriously reduced service hours under their individualized education program, or IEP. One student had been getting 23 hours each week at his local school. Once he went to Manson, he received only 30 minutes.

On average, students on IEPs at Manson received just over an hour per week of special education services, compared with almost 18 hours of service per week in IEPs created by their own local school districts. Asked about the reduction in services, one educational administrator told a federal investigator that the students were on prior IEPs but they “still ended up in prison,” so the school district at Manson is “trying another route.”

Potential reforms

The report gives 12 broad recommendations for how to reduce isolation, strengthen its mental health services and improve delivery of services to youths who receive special education. It also notes that the Attorney General could initiate a lawsuit in 49 days if state officials have not addressed federal authorities’ concerns.

Many of the findings are regularly discussed in the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven and committee co-chair.
“This report sort of validates some of the things that we’ve been talking about,” Walker said. “But that doesn’t make it better.”

Walker said the federal investigation will definitely inform the work of the JJPOC and the legislature in the upcoming legislative session. She stressed the need to put more funding into community services and jobs for youths so they don’t wind up in prison in the first place, and bolstering rehabilitative mentoring programs and restorative justice practices within the prison system. She decried the lack of mental health services for incarcerated youths, claiming that the way the system is set up now doesn’t set them up to come out of prison a better person than when they went in.

Walker said she wasn’t ready to discuss calling for the closure of Manson Youth Institution. Shuttering the prison without a careful examination and reforming of the patterns and practices that led to its closure doesn’t address the issues cited by the Department of Justice and instead avoids the underlying issues, Walker said.

“The one thing that’s for sure is the kids that are in Manson Youth are kids, and they are dependent upon us to be their guardians, no matter what their behavior,” Walker said. “We are their guardians, and we are responsible for them during the time that they are incarcerated at DOC.”

Avatar photo

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.