Connecticut's child advocate says efforts to control the spread of the new coronavirus inside the state's prison system have had unintended and harmful consequences for incarcerated children and young adults.
Sarah Eagan, in a report released Tuesday, said lockdowns and quarantines at the Manson Youth Institution during the pandemic resulted in what amounted to months of solitary confinement for many inmates between March and August.
“Locking anybody up, much less adolescents, 18 hours or 23 hours a day, day after day, week after week, month after month, wreaks havoc with everything from their cognitive development to their physical development to their mental health,” Eagan said of her findings.
Her report also found that during the first few months of the pandemic, children received no educational programs in prison. And it found that while mental health workers did daily “tours” of the units at Manson, many of the inmates received no direct clinical support.
“Providing mental health care through a cell window is not providing mental health care, Eagan said. ”That has to change."
Eagan said girls, who are housed at the York Correctional Institution, the state's only women's prison, have not experienced the same level of isolation. She said that is in part because there are only a handful of them and they are not housed in cells.
In response, the state Department of Correction said mental health triage, crisis counseling and individual psychotherapy for the youth population has continued throughout the pandemic. The department said the psychiatrist assigned to the Manson Youth Institution also has been providing telehealth services.
Eagan credited the department with bringing down infection rates through its virus-mitigation practices, but said those policies are not sustainable for the long term.
She is calling for the state to come up with standardized practices that balance virus mitigation with physical and mental health for all children housed by the state, whether it be in prison or any other congregate setting.
She said she's hopeful that the issue will be addressed when the state's Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee meets later this week.
She noted classes have resumed for students at Manson and that she would like to see the department consider other changes, such as the return of small socially-distanced mental health programs and more recreational opportunities.
“How can they rotate kids outside more often than they do?" she said. “Why can't they spend time in a gym in small groups a couple days a week in a manner that is done safely and that the Department of Health is continually a part of?”
Eagan's findings were part of a larger report on the conditions for incarcerated youth in the Department of Correction.
The report found, among other things, that children of color remain disproportionately incarcerated in the state; that the adult system is not designed to provide the programs and treatment needed to rehabilitate youthful offenders and that youthful offenders in that system are more likely to be placed into long periods of isolated confinement in their cells.
She said while there has been a lot of improvement in conditions since a similar report was issued in 2019, many issues will require legislative solutions.
Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros said he is proud of the work being done with the youth population.
“Our teachers, clinicians and correctional officers witness engagement outcomes every day that simply cannot be measured,“ he said in a statement. “We observe a building sense of confidence and self-worth amongst the youth, motivation and trust in the process and an overall feeling of hope. It’s critical to note that not everything can be found in statistics.”