When I ran a juvenile corrections agency, I had ultimate responsibility for what happened in our facilities for confined youth. It was our job to keep young people safe and help them get on the right track. A critical part of this was to effectively prepare staff to work with challenging young people and to create a culture of respect within the facility – for youth and staff. If something went wrong, we sat down as a team and developed an improvement plan.
At the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS), workers compensation claims are soaring, mostly because staff is frequently injured putting youth in physical restraints. The Department of Children and Families and union officials told The Connecticut Mirror that restraints are necessary because youth at the facility are so difficult. They point to recent policies that removed many young people from CJTS, leaving only the most challenging youth at the facility. This reaction is disturbing on several levels and underlines the need to work toward closing CJTS.
In the first place, only youth who represent a threat to public safety should be held in a juvenile correctional facility. In fact, research suggests that even these youth are more likely to be rehabilitated in therapeutic secure environments, versus adult prison-like facilities.
Regardless of how difficult a young person’s behavior is, there are many ways to manage it short of physical confrontation. Some of this amounts to common sense. One of the best strategies is just keeping kids busy doing positive activities. This benefits young people generally and also makes behavior management easier in a facility. Just as parents want to keep their kids engaged in positive and enriching activities to develop skills and friendships while avoiding trouble, juvenile facilities should provide full and productive days. This makes kids far less likely to get into fights or have altercations with staff.
Staff training is also key. These are tough jobs, and we need to work with staff to enhance their capacity to engage in effective verbal de-escalation techniques, so tense situations that could result in physical altercations are resolved calmly. Having qualified mental health professionals as part of the facility team is also critical. These staff should be readily accessible on the units where kids live, so that they can help manage kids effectively, as well as serving as role models for other staff in how to communicate most effectively with youth.
How we talk to kids matters. We can either amp up the tension until there is confrontation. Or we can slow things down and help youth reflect on what they really want out of an interaction. In my experience, effective training to improve the ability of staff to de-escalate situations results in reducing physical restraints. DCF should be examining why it is not working at CJTS.
Restraints at CJTS are also in the news because they are contributing to millions of dollars in workers compensation claims. They are costly in other ways as well. During a stay at CJTS, youth should learn about self-control and making better choices. In this context, every time physical restraint is used should be viewed as a situation that could have gone better. It is an instance where an adult has resorted to overpowering a youth physically, rather than teaching him something about how to handle an encounter in a calm and safe manner.
The prevalence of restraints at CJTS says something fundamental about the culture of the facility and should raise serious questions about how the environment is being managed, not about whether the kids are so difficult that such restraints are justified or inevitable.
Many, including myself, believe that CJTS, designed largely on an adult prison model, should be closed. Even when well managed, large youth prisons like CJTS are the costliest and least effective way to deal with adolescents who come into contact with the justice system. I strongly support Gov. Dannel Malloy’s call to shutter the facility and believe the resources currently being spent on CJTS could be more wisely invested in proven approaches, including less expensive community based programming and supports for young people. The state should act thoughtfully and urgently to develop a better plan for the most challenging youth in the juvenile justice system.
Things at CJTS must change immediately. Unfortunately, there is little chance of this if the adults who are in charge continue to blame children for the facility’s shortcomings.
Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute and was chief of staff and interim director of D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services when the department reformed and closed its large youth prison.