Isolation, Pepper Spray, Restraints Raise Concerns for Youth at York Correctional

York Correctional Institute (Credit: Google Map Date, 2020)


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A report released Tuesday revealed the use of chemical agents, restraints and extended periods of isolation on young women with significant mental health needs housed in York Correctional Institute in Niantic.

The report, which came from the Office of the Child Advocate, said that the agency was “deeply concerned” about these methods of control and recommended “immediate cessation” of the practices and a review by independent mental health experts. 

Officers at the facility used chemical agents five times on young women between the ages of 18 and 21; three of those incidents occurred in the mental health unit. In one situation, an eighteen-year-old was trying to inflict self-harm on her wrist with a spork. In another, a young woman was beating her head against a wall. Both women were restrained for approximately two hours afterward. 

There were also 10 instances where women were restrained in their cells for an average of two hours. At least one of these restraints lasted over 18 hours. According to a presentation by the Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, the restraints typically occurred after the women threatened self-harm or were in psychiatric distress.

“This is not a practice you would ever see in a mental health program,” Eagan said during a presentation at a meeting of the Juvenile Justice Policy Oversight Committee, which is responsible for recommending policies related to the Juvenile Justice System. 

Additionally, there were 39 incidents of young women being placed in segregation in 2019 and nine more between March and July of 2020, the majority of which lasted a full week. The offences ranged from refusing to remove a hair-weave, assault, and “being out of place.” One girl spent a week in segregation after refusing to comply with a strip search and attempting to harm herself by banging her head against the ground. 

Nakia Hamlett, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College, said that these practices can be traumatic not only for the residents of these facilities, but also for the staff. 

“It makes this sort of powder keg of a stressful environment,” she said. 

Hamlett pointed out that often the young women who are in these settings have had trauma in their past, and that these interventions can simply add even more trauma to what they have already experienced. 

“If our goal is to rehabilitate and help people with recovery,” said Hamlett, “those interventions are not designed to do that — those are designed to establish quick control.” 

In general, she added, “our plan has failed by the time we have to go hands-on.” 

Addressing mental health needs

Between January and December of 2019, York housed 26 young women between the ages of 15 and 21, five of whom were under the age of 18. Fourteen of these women were black and seven hispanic.

Out of the girls in the institute who were between the ages of 15 and 21, the vast majority were classified as a three on a scale of 1 to 5 for mental health. This meant that they needed to see a clinician at least twice a month. The girls under 18 had diagnoses that included schizophrenia, depression and substance use disorder, and all came from homes that the Department of Children and Families had investigated for abuse and neglect. 

Erika Nowakowski, a member of the Committee and the director of Youth Justice Initiatives at the University of New Haven’s Tow Youth Justice Institute, said that both York and its peer institution for boys, Manson Youth Institute in Cheshire, needed to take into account the trauma that these young people had suffered when determining how best to respond to their needs. This should start, she said, from the moment they arrive at the facilities, with a screening process that would make it easier for staff to understand their needs. 

“They have seen things that no child should see. They may have experienced things that no child should have experienced,” said Nowakowski. “If we’re not providing those appropriate mental health services, we’re not doing anything to help them.”

Hamlett said that rather than respond reactively to crises, the goal should be to create an atmosphere of positive reinforcement, identifying alternative behaviors and looking for the root causes of inmates’ behaviors. When immediate intervention does have to be taken, which Hamlett said should happen as infrequently as possible, the staff and residents should fully process the situation after it happens. 

Nowakowski said she believed that the entire York facility should be modeled after the WORTH unit, a specialized unit that is based on a model of positive engagement, a low staff-to-inmate ratio, and gender-based responses. 

Nowakowski and Hamlett both said that training for the staff was critical. Hamlett recommended that staff have at least a basic understanding of how trauma impacts development and how to create positive behavioral support plans. Nowakowski said the attitude of the staff was just as important.

“From leadership to line staff, those individuals must have the knowledge, the experience, and I would even say the desire to work with children and youth,” said Nowakowski. 

Making changes

Eagan said that the practice of isolating young people was one of the Office of the Child Advocate’s number one concerns. The report revealed that, like their counterparts at Mason, the young women ages 18 to 21 who are placed in isolation at York spend 23 hours a day in a cell and do not attend programs.  

Despite the fact that the National Institute on Correctional Health Care has spoken out against solitary confinement, particularly for individuals with mental health problems, Eagan said that the practice was “not an area where we have consensus with the DOC.” 

Eagan also said that they needed to seriously consider whether or not to conduct strip searches on young inmates, which she said could risk causing them further trauma. Her office also recommended banning the use of chemical agents like pepper spray on young people. 

Angel Quiros, Commissioner of the Department Of Corrections, said at the meeting that his agency would make swift changes. He referenced increasing training for staff and requesting that they be given statutory authority to access documentation from the Department of Children and Families. With a clearer picture of the trauma that the inmates had faced before their incarceration, said Quiros, the department would have a better idea of what they need. 

Quiros also said the department was working to improve technology in order to address the issue of unmet educational needs during the pandemic.

Despite Gov. Ned Lamont’s exemption of in-prison schools from the mandated school closures, the school district for the Department of Corrections cancelled all in-person classes in March. For the remainder of the year, school for the young people at Mason and York was reduced to a series of educational packets. 

Quiros said that he thought the agency was “heading in the right direction” toward not using chemical agents on young offenders. However, he said that there had been incidents when using pepper spray was necessary to stop inmates from violently hurting another inmate. 

Nowakowski said that all their recommendations were steps toward the ultimate goal, getting these young people out of adult correctional facilities. 

The report recommended that members of the committee “tour” the facilities where inmates are kept in isolation so that they were able to see what it looked like first-hand. It’s a recommendation that Nowakowski, who has been to the facilities several times, said she agrees with “100 percent.”

“I think we learn a lot from moving away from our computers,” she said. 

She pointed out how important it was not only to visit the institutions, but to talk with the staff, families and young men and women housed in the facilities.

“They’re the ones most impacted. They’re the ones living it day-to-day,” she said. “Let’s hear from them.”

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.