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Removing Youth from Adult Jails & Prisons is a Racial Justice Issue: Making the Shift in Connecticut away from Prisons & Toward Communities

Posted in Campaigns Thursday, 18 April 2019

Removing Youth from Adult Jails & Prisons is a Racial Justice Issue: Making the Shift in Connecticut away from Prisons & Toward Communities

Jeree Thomas, CFYJ Policy Director

When I was finally let into general population, entering into my cottage, I felt like I was walking into a dog pound, all of the youth banging on the doors to get my attention to send threats. While I was passing every door I would look at the kid behind it. All I could see were kids, black like me, that had been turned out due to the system.
- Romelo Gross, formerly incarcerated in Manson Youth Institution

On Monday, April 15th, Connecticut legislators Senator Gary Winfield, Representative Toni Walker, and Representative Robyn Porter joined the young adult leaders of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance Justice Advisors program to discuss how to shift away from holding children in adult jails and prisons in the state.  

A recurring theme throughout the event was that the prosecution and incarceration of children as adults has its roots in slavery and racial terror.  As a result, the punishment of adultification is most often reserved for black youth. This is true in Connecticut and nationally, where black youth are disproportionately represented in adult courts, jails and prisons.  This holds true even as the United States has reduced its daily population of youth in adult jails and prisons  by 53% since 2010, from 9,855 on any given night to 4,656.  

The lived experiences of youth in the room and youth who are still incarcerated anchored the event. Voice recordings of quotes from currently incarcerated youth kicked off and ended the event.  The quotes below and additional feedback from youth are also available in a pamphlet called Stay in Your Lane available through the Office of the Child Advocate.

“I’m getting out of the box tonight, they said been in here for 5 days. Miss, I didn’t mean anything by it, I stood up in class because I didn’t understand and they said I was threatening, asked me why I didn’t use my coping skills instead; What do they mean, I don’t have those.”

“It doesn’t matter what we say, we are always wrong, staff is always right, it’s prison. Don’t fight the ticket you will lose, they already had my days on the ticket before the hearing, so I just have to hang my head.” 

Sarah Eagan, Connecticut’s Child Advocate, shared the results of her office’s recent review of the conditions for children held in adult facilities, specifically the Manson Youth Institution and York Correctional Institution.  The Office of the Child Advocate found that children in these facilities were held in solitary confinement, deprived of education and mental health treatment, and rarely had the opportunity to connect with their families or other supportive adults. The conditions are so difficult that in the report, the Department of Corrections states that “they believe youth would be better served outside of an adult corrections system.”

During the question and answer period, the audience and presenters discussed action steps and alternatives to holding youth in prison.  This year, the Campaign for Youth Justice will release reports on how states have moved away from holding youth in adult jails and what alternatives they are using to support youth.  This shift away from adult jails is particularly critical with the passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018 which reauthorized the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.  The new law calls on states to remove youth prosecuted as adults from adult jails three years from now.   

While many states utilize juvenile facilities to hold youth prosecuted as adults, the Campaign is highlighting community-based programs that already serve youth charged with serious offenses including; felony diversion programs, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc, Credible Messenger Mentoring, Functional Family Therapy, and Multi-Systemic Therapy.  You can read more about these alternatives in our new report: If Not the Adult System, Then Where: Alternatives to Adult Incarceration for Youth Certified As Adults. These programs are rehabilitative, humane, cost-effective, and result in better outcomes for youth and their communities, but they require buy in.

Connecticut must invest in youth in their communities as much as they invest in youth in prisons.  As a result, the Justice Advisors are launching a new campaign in the fall entitled #InvestinMeCT. At the Campaign for Youth Justice, we will be following their lead and joining them again in the call for greater support and investment in young people and their communities.