Behind the Bars

Inside a prisoner’s cell: a picture frame, television and black Reebok sneakers.

Based on their daily routines, Travis and Jequan appear to be two average twenty-somethings from New Haven. They work from two to 10p.m. Monday through Friday and enjoy sleeping, watching television and playing cards on the weekend.

“I used to work in the receiving room, cleaning, distributing property, towels,” Travis said. “I’ve been working clearance, cleaning counselors’ offices for two months.”

Travis and Jequan are also inmates at the New Haven Community Correctional Facility, located at 245 Whalley Ave., across the street from the only McDonald’s within walking distance of campus. Before that, they both spent time at Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, Conn., the state’s main facility for convicted minors. Travis and Jequan, now having served six and eight months respectively at the Whalley Avenue jail, agree that the facility is run, for the most part, effectively.

Travis and Jequan are just two of many inmates inhabiting a part of New Haven that no one sees. The one we hope we never have the occasion to see. The New Haven Community Corrections Center and Juvenile Detention Center are worlds of their own — equipped with schools, libraries and medical facilities. I stepped into this world somewhat confident in my knowledge of the corrections system, but the many intricacies of life behind bars proved far more complicated than I could have ever conceived.

JAIL

Entering the facility, despite having level 4 security (the highest is 5), entails a mere walk past the string of row houses that face the entrance. There are no barbed wire, no large gates — just bricks and a small glass lobby, reminiscent of the nearby Wexler-Grant Community School. A metal detector is positioned directly in front of the main entrance, but it isn’t guarded. The visitor check-in feels more like a doctor’s office than a jail; people were running outside to talk on cell phones and women were speculating how much longer they would be waiting.

For me, it was only a few minutes before my escort appeared: Richard Laffargue, counselor supervisor. He led me into the maximum-security visiting park, a room where family and friends can visit with their loved ones. Barren of any décor except the wood and glass partition separating inmates from visitors, the room was sterile and uncomfortable.

“Anyone with a criminal history has to write to the warden and get clearance to visit,” Laffargue said. “We also get a lot of victims that try to visit; they also have to go though the warden.”

Inmates housed on the maximum-security side are allowed non-contact visits with up to two adults and two children Monday through Friday (except Wednesday) between the hours of 9:30 and 11 a.m., 1:30 and 3 p.m., and 7 and 10 p.m. Inmates from New Haven, Waterbury, Meriden and Milford courts are housed at the Whalley Avenue Jail while awaiting court dates or transfers to other facilities.

Just a flight of stairs away from the visiting park is the administrative hall, where hard copies of inmate records are kept in a row of filing cabinets against the back wall. Leffargue pulled a file from one of the number of cabinets marked “unsentenced.”

“This top sheet is called a face sheet; it’s got all the basic information,” he said. “The file also tells you about any contraband they’ve been found with and if they’ve ever tested positive for drugs.”

Peeking at someone’s file, even under the supervision of an escort, felt a little devious. But even more concerning was the large discrepancy between the number of sentenced and unsentenced inmates. Seven hundred of the 800 inmates are unsentenced and the average stay at the facility is three months. After this period, inmates will be transferred to one Connecticut’s 18 state prisons

When arrests occurs at night, the police hold the suspects at the station until the morning, when they can be formally arraigned in court. At this point, if the suspects cannot post bail, they are sent to the Whalley Avenue Jail (if they were arraigned in one of the four courts it serves). At that point, a team of two evaluators reads over an inmate’s file and decides, based on psychological and medical need, if there are any facilities that the inmate could not be transferred to if convicted, and the inmate begins initial processing.

The receiving area is relatively small, and includes “bullpens” for holding inmates waiting to be transported to court. On average, about 100 inmates are transported to court daily, so it’s a busy place. The receiving area is also home to the “boss chair,” which resembles an electric chair, but is actually a way of detecting metal anywhere on the body, since inmates accused of a misdemeanor are not allowed to be strip-searched. For those who are, there are semi-private dividers lined up next to the “boss chair.”

After being inspected for contraband, which includes weapons and drugs, inmates are given Kwell, a shampoo designed to prevent lice and itch mites from entering the facility, sent to the showers and issued T-shirts, socks, underwear and a “care-package” filled with deodorant, soap, a washcloth, toothbrush, toothpaste, a towel, sheets and a blanket.

The first two days of incarceration, Leffargue said, hold the highest risk of suicide.

“A lot of housing units have 15-minute tours, meaning guards are walking around every 15 minutes to check on the population,” he said. “Inmates might feel humiliated, often facing isolation. For some, it’s their first time in prison, and a lot of the population here has drug and alcohol problems.”

The hospital unit in the facility looks after inmates’ medical and mental health, but there are few mental health programs. Inmates who need mental health services are transferred to Garner Correctional Institution. The medical wing includes nine isolation units — small white, windowless cells — for inmates with contagious illnesses. Several inmates had the chicken pox when I toured the facility.

Efforts to resolve medical issues accounted for the bulk of the five to 20 letters received weekly by the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School.

“We received letters from inmates who claimed their HIV and other long-term medications were not properly dispensed,” said Anders Pauley ’10, who worked at the clinic in the year preceding last May. “We also heard from a man who claimed that his testicular cancer had only been diagnosed after several inquiries related to pain and swelling in his groin area.”

Pauley described how one inmate would send the clinic a letter every few weeks on behalf of a friend or acquaintance who claimed to have serious untreated medical issues. He also said he remembers one heartbreaking letter from a man who only spoke Spanish, in which the man said he could not make his psychiatric medication issues understood.

But the clinic disbanded last summer after losing its director.

Next to the medical unit, the entrance to the school bears a sign from Principal Green, who oversees correctional facility schools in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven, reminding students to tuck in their shirts.

The jail offers GED training with a state certified teacher. The students have to apply for admission. In some cases, the prison will postpone an inmate’s transfer so that he can take the GED. Inmates also earn a stipend for attending school, encouraging inmates to complete their education.

Another way to earn money at the facility is to apply for one of the 100 jobs at the jail, which pay an average of 75 cents to $1.25 a day. Most positions are janitorial, except those in the kitchen, which are more coveted. For inmates like Travis and Jequan, having a job gives inmates a way to pass the time.

The “security bubble” in the middle of the maximum-security housing unit is filled with surveillance videos, and around the bubble are four recreation rooms where inmates were watching television, playing games and staring at Leffargue and me. Housing, which extends outward from this recreation and security nucleus to the north and south, is broken up into single and double cells. Leffargue opened one of the doors, marked DL-10, and told me I could step inside. Hesitantly, I entered the cell of one of the inmates. Immediately I noticed a translucent television (designed so that inmates can’t hide contraband), a multicolored picture frame and a black pair of Reebok sneakers. This was his temporary home, and there I was in it. But there was no awkwardness, no hesitation. Only procedure.

In the general housing block, inmates are housed in two dorms, East and West, each with 112 inmates. The floor is arranged by cubes with two bunk-beds and a table. There are four men to a cube, and moving between them is not allowed. The cubes were in disarray, some of the small cots folded into themselves, sheets tossed around.

“They just did a shake down,” Leffargue said. “They’re looking for contraband in the bunks. Happens a few times a year.”

In addition to shakedowns, random urine tests are conducted to ensure that inmates aren’t using drugs on the inside. The jail schedule is highly structured: wake up at 6, roll call, recreation time, school or work and lights out at 10. There is level 2 to 3 security in the dorms throughout the night, and guards do 30-minute tours of the building. Violent criminals and gang members are not housed in these dorms. Inmate discipline is not a major concern; there hasn’t been an escape in 11 years.

There is one thing inmates can control: their hair. In the front of the dorm near two laundry machines stood a line of about 10 men behind a makeshift barber’s chair where one of the inmates was shaving heads and doing trims. Officer Outlaw (I kid you not), the guard on duty, said hair cuts are popular during recreation hour, and that being a barber is a job that requires screening. Outlaw knows his dorm inside and out, having spent more than 26 years working in the jail.

The final stop on my tour was the main dorm visiting park, which looked very much like the maximum-security visiting park. However, inmates housed on this side of the prison are allowed contact visits: they can give exactly one hug and one kiss to each of their visitors. As in the maximum security side, visits are often cut short because the area can only accommodate seven to eight prisoners at once.

There are no rights in prison, only privileges. There is little privacy. At any given moment, a cell or a person could be searched. The inmates are not forced to take on any responsibility for their own recovery, because around every corner there’s a guard watching and enforcing the rules. But that’s not how life on the outside is. Probation officers are there to check in with offenders, but no one is conducting 30-minute rounds inside an inmate’s bedroom at home. What are they supposed to do when that structure is gone?

JUVY

The New Haven Juvenile Detention Center was built in the mid-1980s to help the city, then one of the most violent in the nation, deal with a rising number of young offenders, Superintendent Jack Fitzgerald said. Lacking natural light, proper staffing and adequate medical facilities, the State of Connecticut was sued in 1995 on behalf of a young offender over conditions of confinement. That was when Fitzgerald and a group of experienced personnel began at the center started trying to change the way the system worked.

“This place is the exact opposite of what you saw yesterday,” Fitzgerald said of his facility in contrast to the adult jail next door. “My staff is trained very differently. Most are college educated as well.”

Fitzgerald said his center more closely resembles a resident treatment or adolescent psychiatric unit than a jail. He said his main concern is reassuring the youths that they are in a safe place, not like what they’ve seen on TV.

“A lot of these kids points of reference is ‘Lock-Up Raw’ and other B-rate TV shows,” he said.

When youths first arrive, they spend an hour in a series of mental and physical tests to ensure they receive proper attention. Strip searches are done to check for contraband, but also for signs of abuse.

While the majority of juvenile offenders are not sent to a facility, those who are remain there for one of two reasons: Police have either already done an on-site arrest for a serious offense like assaults, sexual offenses and arson, or a judge has deemed a child dangerous to himself or his community and has signed a warrant to take them into custody. From the time a child arrives at the facility, he will appear in court within 24 hours and will continue to do so every 15 days to ensure that juvenile cases are moving along. However, the average stay at this facility is only 14 days. Fifty percent of kids that enter today will go home tomorrow. Fitzgerald said that while many of the children in the New Haven Juvenile Detention Center will return home never to see the inside of this facility again, a significant number return for second and third stays. The reentry rate is very high. Ninety percent of admits to this center have already been involved in the judicial system. The facility makes a total of 850 admits a year; at any time, the center will have an average of 34 kids. Many of the parents of these children will not come visit them, leaving the children, for the most part, on their own.

The average age of an inmate at the New Haven Juvenile Detention Center is 14 to 16. They often feel isolated and upset that they let their families down. Suicide is such a concern that children identified as at risk are checked on every four minutes, the amount of time it takes for brain damage to set in.

Even kids that are not at risk are monitored every 15 minutes. The last suicide attempt was more than 18 years ago.

One of the center’s most notable programs is the Target Program, designed by Julian Ford of the University of Connecticut. The program aims to teach youths to recognize their stressors and anxieties in order to deal with them themselves without having to be formally disciplined. Kids with exemplary behavior move up the behavioral levels, 3 being the lowest, 1 being the highest. Level 1 kids who have been in the facility for longer than a week are placed on privilege status, meaning that their room door never has to be shut. While all children are allowed to go to a rewards store twice a week, privileged status kids can go to a better rewards store than the other students where they can buy disposable items like chips, cookies and soda. They are also treated to a special lunch with Fitzgerald.

These lunches also serve as an opportunity for Fitzgerald to assess the effectiveness of his programs. He gives each of the children a “magic wand” and asks them what they would change about the detention center.

“A common suggestion is ‘you need to be harder on us,” he said. “Sometimes parents will have kids sent here and tell us they don’t want them anymore. The kids perceive staff as caring more for them, it’s like they want to justify being here.”

Like its adult counterpart, life on the inside of the New Haven Juvenile Detention Centered is highly structured. When children are not at school, they’re either taking their recreation time in the facility’s gym, library or game room, visiting with family or in an activities group, such as health and drug education. Unlike the Whalley jail, however, a large emphasis is placed on self-esteem building and self-reliance. Youths are issued a uniform of jeans and a polo shirt (different colors for boys and girls).

“We don’t want them wearing a jumpsuit that is too big for them, looking like a mini-prisoner,” Fitzgerald said. “We want them to look like kids.”

They wake up at 6 or 6:30 for breakfast, a shower (girls can also shower in the evening) and school from 8:40 a.m. until 2:40p.m. Classes are taught by state-certified educators, and classrooms are equipped with smartboards and computers.

Fitzgerald said he believes such technologically advanced classrooms have had a positive impact on many of the children. He recalled a time when youths at the facility were preparing a parents visit show, which included a group African drumming demonstration and individual youth talent performances. One juvenile, Juan, asked Fitzgerald how he could help out with the show without performing. Fitzgerald said he recommended making certificates to commend the students performing. Juan soon presented Fitzgerald with eight unique certificates for each of the performers.

“Of course I made a huge deal out of it, called him to office for lunch. When I asked how he learned how to use the computer like that in the community school, he told me that he learned those skills here,” Fitzgerald said.

Several Yale students have also become involved in the education of inmates and young offenders.

The Prison Education Project, or PEP, is a subsidiary of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project. Students in the group visit either the Whalley Avenue Jail or the Cheshire Correctional Institution to help prepare students for the GED exam.

“The past two years we have sent about five or six tutors each week and it tends to be mostly one on one interactions, though sometimes it will be two students for each tutor,” said Josh Menke ’11, who coordinated tutoring at the Cheshire Correctional Institution last year.

The drive to Cheshire Correctional Institution takes 45 minutes each way, meaning that, including the one hour of tutoring, students make a three-hour time commitment during workday hours when they are allowed into the facilities.

“On one occasion I remember driving to the prison only to find out that no one was allowed in or out for a set period of time, and so we drove back,” Menke said. “It just goes with the territory… Every person I have tutored has really wanted to be there and know the material. There are few feelings better than being told that your student passed his/her GED test.”

While some may have an encounter as intimate as helping an inmate earn his GED or working on behalf of an inmate’s legal issues, the inner-workings of the system are still elusive. Even a trip through the metal doors may never fully reveal what goes on behind bars.

Comments