Hear from frontline staff during the debate on the future of Manson Youth Facility

The future of the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire has been a hot topic of discussion and debate. Unfortunately, lawmakers and advocates have neglected to listen to a key stakeholder – the frontline staff tasked with maintaining safety, security and programming within the institution.

I am one of those frontline people, having spent the vast majority of my 19 years as a corrections officer at MYI. My colleagues at AFSCME Local 387 join me in stressing the importance of keeping MYI open while making the necessary investments in staffing, programming and facility design.

Aaron Lichwalla

The public should know that many of the allegations and issues raised by the recent Department of Justice report have been corrected. Individual behavior management plans are in place. All custody violations that were noted in the report have been resolved. There is no use of isolation or restrictive housing. Minors are no longer placed in suits designed to fight or cause harm to others.

Instead, they stay in their usual accommodations. They participate in recreational activities, have telephone calling privileges, and participate in religious and therapeutic programs with their assigned counselors. They are also encouraged to participate in individualized mental health programs and specialized programs like anger management with their counselors.

MYI staff provide the safest environment for minors compared to any other agency or private provider. Working with a population of approximately 300 people, every day, three shifts a day, our staff manage up to 190 “keep separate” scenarios to avoid injury from fights, drugs, gang activity, etc. . Our ability to handle these “keep out” scenarios is something correctional staff never get.

Compare that to what is happening in New York. In 2019, politicians moved to transfer juvenile offenders from the Department of Corrections to the Children’s Services Administration, which in turn sparked serious violence and total and utter chaos.

Staff are ambushed, beaten, held hostage and have their keys taken away so that the minors can access other areas of the facility to violently attack each other. Some of these minors were stabbed, slashed and beaten by a whole dormitory of young people.

Removing miners from MYI and placing them in an environment like what is happening in New York would be an absolute bad move. Closing our establishment and placing young people between the ages of 18 and 21 in adult prisons would be tantamount to throwing them to the wolves.

This is exactly why Connecticut must be very careful not to go down a similar path that would only create a disastrous and dangerous environment for youth and staff.

MYI staff can do the job with more resources.

Currently, mental health staff are under strain providing services to over 300 minors housed at MYI. We recommend hiring four other dedicated mental health professionals to provide immediate assessments in our two juvenile units on the first and second shifts. According to the Department of Justice report, it makes sense to hire more specialist teachers to meet individualized educational needs.

The biggest change our union would like to see implemented is to see MYI move in a direction that mirrors the programming of Connecticut’s vocational and technical schools.

MYI has 75 acres and over 30 classrooms available for us to improve. Let us seize the opportunity to create incentive programs so that young offenders can learn from what the population over 18 is doing.

Help young people learn skills in areas such as automotive tech work/fluid changing; automotive aesthetics; tinted window; repair of small engines; barber certificate; landscaping/lawn mowing/gardening; and securing apprenticeships for electrical, HVAC and plumbing. Let’s teach them how to search and apply for these kinds of jobs online once they leave, maybe even partner and apprentice with outside companies.

Yes, it would require the state to hire more staff, especially vocational teachers, mental health workers, and perhaps additional staff to help facilitate work release programs. Again, the pieces are in place.

Investing in the rehabilitation of young people before they embark on a dangerous or destructive path in life is invaluable and well worth the resulting rewards for miners, their families and the community. Any such investment should include strengthening the work we do at Manson Youth Facility to keep minors from returning to prison, whether young or adult.

Aaron Lichwalla is Vice President of AFSCME Local 387, Southington

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