Right now, when kids are charged with crimes or sentenced as an adult, they go to one of two places: boys to Manson Youth Institute (MYI) and girls to York Correctional Institution (YCI).
As of December 2021, the Federal Department of Justice released investigative findings into Manson’s practices and found that they were ‘violating children’s civil rights and the federal disabilities act.’ In addition to the findings of that investigation, there is proof that prisons are ineffective.
So my question is, when we talk about incarcerating young people, are we talking about solving the problem or simply putting the problem away? Are we incarcerating people to rehabilitate them or keep mass incarceration in business?
During this Legislative Session, I testified at the Judiciary Committee hearing opposing H.B. 5417, H.B. 418, S.B 365, and S.B. 16 – pointing out that youth, specifically ones ages 13 and 14, do not belong in an adult prison or on the criminal docket at all.
After my testimony, State Rep. Craig Fishbein asked me if I thought kids should be in prison, to which I responded that I don’t believe they should be in the facilities that exist in our state now.
His response was “so we should paint the walls pink and add flowers” which was a sarcastic response to divert the conversation from the real problems inside our state’s adult system. We can’t talk about kids in prison without discussing the environment, which should go without saying has nothing to do with the design choice of the walls.
This issue has always been about the dehumanization and violation of rights that take place in these cages we call prison, along with the fact that we know our prisons aren’t designed to rehabilitate.
Rehabilitation is about creating an environment that promotes normality and a vision for success. Anyone who has truly dedicated their career to understanding the challenges that young people face and understanding the ins and outs of the criminal legal system would know this, and would specifically know that prison is not the answer.
The more unfortunate part is that many people who support mass incarceration, including parents who think it’s “what their kids need,” don’t understand the negative impacts of incarceration: mental instability, lack of mental illness support, insufficient medical access, increased insanity, severe depression, long periods of isolation, loss of access to housing and employment after you finish your sentence, and in some cases suicide.
Through my work, I’ve advocated for decades for no kids in prison. When people hear us say no kids in prison they automatically assume we mean just release the kids into the community and let them “run wild.” This is a complete misunderstanding of what we want. In fact, it’s the opposite.
When we say no kids in prison we mean in order to address the root issues that are leading young people into the legal system we need to put them in a healthy environment to truly focus on them as individuals, and prisons do not do that. Prisons are not designed for rehabilitation, especially for children. Instead of housing young people in a cage, we need to create spaces that promote rehabilitation.
Ensuring public safety requires that lessons can actually be learned. This is the root of justice.
Take a look at New York City’s ‘Close to Home‘ facilities. My team and I visited a few in April and saw that they had youth who committed serious offenses staying in a secure placement that looked like a house in the middle of the neighborhood.
Their model and structure were based on camaraderie, accountability, and adapting young people to the things that help them move forward successfully — simple things such as laundry and cleaning your room, and more interpersonal things like unpacking trauma and managing conflict resolution. There were no bars, cells, or any prison-like features. They had a hardware secure placement that basically replicated their staff-secure placement. If needed, it did have locked doors and access to cuffs, but their practices were very humane and realistic. They focus less on the crime and more on the child – something we don’t do in Connecticut.
Our state has something similar called the REGIONS program, but when we decided to invest in these programs after the closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CTJS), the investment was cut short. We didn’t create a sufficient amount of these community-based, homelike placements and it almost goes without saying there’s significant room for improvement in the programming.
That said, this isn’t a new idea. We need to build on what we know works and be transparent with the community and families about how our prisons are and have also been failing them.
As a state considered to be progressive in youth justice reform, we have to continue to pay attention to the data, acknowledge what works, and fully commit to investing in these solutions. Data shows prisons increase the likelihood of recidivism.
Investigations and further data have revealed that the facilities where we hold young people charged as adults are unsafe, don’t address the root issues that young people are facing, violate their rights as humans, and, most importantly, don’t recognize that they’re children.
How much more evidence does it take? We need to move away from revenge focused justice and really think hard about what justice means. Does it mean throwing a person away in a prison who will only come out into the community worse than they entered? Or does it mean making sure that we put people in spaces that promote their well-being as much as ours?