Following the release of videos documenting illegal treatment of youths held at two Connecticut juvenile prisons, lawmakers in Hartford spent hours yesterday discussing alternatives to juvenile prisons.
The Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, headed by state Rep. Toni Walker, began its September meeting by examining how youths are incarcerated in the state. Part of the discussion focused on questioning policies that result in the restraint and seclusion of youths who have been detained.
Representatives from the Department of Children and Families then provided an update on their efforts to reform the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and Pueblo Unit — the sites of the footage documenting illegal seclusion of incarcerating youth. The videos released Tuesday by the Office of the Child Advocate served as part of an addendum to an 18-month investigation into DCF facilities.
“Institutional abuse is just as bad as domestic abuse and anything else,” Walker said. “We have to make sure that we are not doing that because we would throw a parent in jail … Now we are the parent, so we’ve got to be careful about how we do this.”
The OCA report notes that CJTS and Pueblo Unit lack adequate suicide prevention and crisis management and also lack appropriate support and training for staff.
In a video released by the OCA, a juvenile held at Pueblo Unit is restrained for refusing to leave the common area of the hall. The juvenile screams that she has been “set up,” but several staff members restrain her, put her into the prone position and then put her into a solitary room, where she continues to scream. The door closes and one of the staff member notes that the juvenile is ripping the hair out of her head.
The girl then disappears from the view of the camera into a blind spot. During that time, two staff members go outside to observe the juvenile through a window; text overlaying the videos states that at this point, she has “a shirt tied around her neck, her face bright red and her head swaying.” It is at this time that the staff is instructed to enter with a J-hook.
“How is this happening in the care of an agency that has been given guardianship over kids who have been taken out of their homes because they have suffered trauma, because they do suffer from mental illness?” State Representative Robyn Porter asked at the meeting.
Kristy Ramsy, the assistant superintendent of the CJTS, explained that the video does not show the full context of what had previously happened at the facility, but still acknowledged that this was not the best way to handle this situation. Ramsy also noted that this video was taken 14 months ago, and that CJTS has since been reforming their procedures for restraining and secluding juveniles.
The OCA’s report states that the DCF is currently working to improve the facility, with efforts including eliminating unlawful restraint and seclusion in the facilities and improving suicide prevention protocols.
Abby Anderson, the director of the Juvenile Justice Alliance, stressed in an interview with the News that while the state’s first priority is the youths’ safety, the state must ultimately begin implementing a long-term plan to address the problem. She said the fundamental problem is confinement, not the specific facilities shown in the videos. Anderson added that juvenile facilities should house fewer juveniles in order to adequately address the needs of the youths.
The OCA notes in its report released in July that the primary purpose of their juvenile facilities is to improve public safety by rehabilitating delinquent youth, but this sort of paradigm is exactly what some say is causing the juvenile justice system to fail. The OCA acknowledges this tension in its report, citing research finding that separating juveniles from their family and community can be detrimental.
“For more than a decade we’ve tried to operate the system with two separate goals,” director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice Jeffrey Butts said during the meeting. “We expect it to be a public safety system, but we also use words and labels to reflect that we hope that it helps [youths] stay out of criminal life styles and get back on a path towards a successful adulthood. Those two values are not always compatible and inevitably when they come into conflict the public safety mission always wins out.”
Experts suggested following the courses of action taken by some other states: shutting down juvenile prisons and re-allocating that money towards community-based programs.
“Anything that we can do at an institution we can in a community if the community has the resources, and we can do it much better in the community,” said Shaena Fazal, the national policy director for Youth Advocate Programs, Inc.
The DCF was founded in 1969.