Manson Youth Institution

The future of the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire has been a hot topic of discussion and debate. Unfortunately, legislators and advocates have neglected to listen to a key stakeholder—the frontline staff charged with maintaining safety, security and programming within the institution.

I am one of those front-liners, having spent the vast majority of my 19 years as a correction officer at MYI. My co-workers in AFSCME Local 387 join me in stressing the importance of keeping MYI open while making needed investment in staff, programming and facility design.

Aaron Lichwalla

The public should know that many of the allegations and questions raised by the recent Justice Department report have been remedied. Individual behavior management plans are in place. All of the custody-based violations that were noted in the report have been resolved. There is no use of isolation or restrictive housing. Juveniles are no longer placed in designated jumpsuits for fighting or causing harm to others.

Instead, they remain in their regular housing units. They participate in recreational activities, have phone call privileges, and partake in religious and therapeutic programs with their assigned counselors. They are also encouraged to participate in individualized mental health programs and specialized programs like anger management with their counselors.

MYI staff provide the safest environment for juveniles compared to any other agency or private provider. Working with a population count of around 300, every single day, three shifts a day, our staff manage up to 190 “keep separate” scenarios to prevent from harming one another because of fights, drugs, gang activity and the like. Our skill in managing these “keep separate” scenarios is something correctional staff never get credit for.

Contrast this to what’s happening in New York City. In 2019, politicians decided to move the juvenile offenders over from the Department of Corrections to the Administration for Children Services, which in turn has ignited serious violence and complete, utter mayhem.

Staff are getting ambushed, beaten, held hostage and having their keys taken from them so that the juveniles can gain access to other facility locations to violently attack one another. Some of these juveniles have been stabbed, slashed and beaten by a whole dormitory of youths.

Removing juveniles from MYI and placing them into an environment like what’s occurring in New York would be the absolute wrong decision. Closing down our facility and placing the 18- to 21-year-old population into adult prisons would be like throwing them to the wolves.

This is exactly why Connecticut needs to be very careful not to go down a similar path that would only create a disastrous and dangerous environment for the youth and staff.

MYI staff can get the job done with more resources.

Currently, mental health staff are strained by providing services for more than 300 juveniles housed at MYI. We recommend hiring four more dedicated mental health staff professionals to provide immediate assessments in both of our juvenile units on first and second shifts. Based on the Justice Department report, it makes sense to hire more special education teachers to address individualized educational needs.

The biggest change that our union would like to see implemented is to see MYI go in a direction that mirrors the programming at Connecticut’s vocational-technical schools.

MYI has 75 acres and over 30 classrooms at our disposal to improve on. Let’s seize the opportunity to create incentivized programs so that juvenile offenders can be inspired by what the over-18 population is doing.

Let’s help juveniles gain proficiency in areas like automotive technical work/changing fluids; automotive detailing; window tinting; small engine repair; barber certification; landscaping/lawn mowing/gardening; and securing apprenticeships for electrical, HVAC and plumbing. Let’s teach them how to research and apply for these type of jobs online for once they leave —maybe even create partnerships and apprenticeships with outside companies.

Yes, this would require the state to hire more staff, specifically, vocational teachers, mental health workers and perhaps additional employees to assist in facilitating work release programs. Again, the pieces are in place.

Investing in the rehabilitation of young people before they go down a dangerous or destructive path in life is invaluable and well worth the rewards that would result for juveniles, their families, and the community. Any such investment should include strengthening the work we do at Manson Youth Institution to prevent juveniles from returning to prison either as youth or adults.

Aaron Lichwalla is Vice President of AFSCME Local 387, Southington