Conn. Governor Closes Troubled Juvenile Center

Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell is closing the state's troubled Juvenile Training School, a detention center for boys. The $57 million facility was built just four years ago, during the administration of former Gov. John Rowland. Rowland "fast-tracked" the building project as part of a state contracting scheme. He's now serving a year in prison, and experts have called the facility "obsolete." From member station WNPR, Av Harris reports.

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Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell is shutting down the state's troubled Juvenile Training School after just four years in operation. The school's harsh disciplinary procedures made it a focus of criticism. It's also at the center of the corruption scandal that sent the state's former governor, John Rowland, to federal prison. From member station WNPR in Hartford, Av Harris reports.

Unidentified Man: Now what you're going into right here is Building 2.

(Soundbite of doors unlocking)

AV HARRIS reporting:

It takes a guard to electronically unlock four to five steel doors to get into any building at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. The small, cinder-block cells have stainless-steel toilets and hard plastic mounts for beds. Only a thin sliver of outside light shines through windows no more than two inches across. Donald DeVore, with Connecticut's Department of Children and Families, shows one area where teen-agers were kept in seclusion up to 23 hours a day.

Mr. DONALD DeVORE (Connecticut Department of Children and Families): Oh, this particular one is an isolation room. This was used to put kids in for behavioral infractions. And we also have these rooms in the corner--is where the restraint beds were. They were just like a hospital-type bed where if a youth became out of control, they could be restrained to a bed. They're soft restraints, leather restraints.

HARRIS: But there was nothing soft about it, according to former training school inmate Ty Tisdale(ph).

(Soundbite of documentary film)

Mr. TY TISDALE (Former Training School Inmate): But some people that got restrained--it feels like blood, guts and gore, man.

HARRIS: Tisdale appeared on a documentary film critical of the training school produced by the group Youth Rights Media.

(Soundbite of documentary film)

Mr. TISDALE: You could get choked out. Now I mean, you could get tossed in a headlock, face slammed against the floor, handcuffs thrown on your wrists and your ankles, carried out like that with handcuffs on you causing dislocated arms, ankles, shoulders, man. You really in prison, man, with them restraints.

HARRIS: Most of the inmates at the training school are 14- and 15-year-old boys who've committed offenses like assault or vandalism. Many of them were abused as young children. Often they have mental health and substance abuse problems. Last year, violence at the school between guards and the inmates prompted Governor Jodi Rell to ask Donald DeVore to step in and take over. DeVore says one of the first things he did when he got here was shut down the maximum security wing in Building 2.

Mr. DeVORE: Environment to me means a great deal. And it's very difficult to tell kids and families that you care about them, that you want to provide therapeutic services to them, that you want to work on reintegrating them back to their families in resolving some of the original problems that contributed to them being here, and then you take them back and lock them up in a cell at night.

HARRIS: Governor Rell wants to replace the training school with smaller, more regional facilities. The idea is not new in Connecticut, but House Judiciary Chairman Michael Lawlor, a Democrat, says in 1999, then-Governor John Rowland threatened to veto anything other than one large, high-security facility.

State Representative MICHAEL LAWLOR (Democrat, Connecticut; Chairman, Judiciary Committee): It was hard to figure out why Governor Rowland and his chief of staff wanted this prison. Now it's clear. They wanted it because it was a political payback to a contractor who had given the governor and his staff quite a few bribes. The real cost of this to the taxpayers was the $58 million we've apparently wasted to build this big facility.

HARRIS: In addition to those costs, Connecticut's child advocate Jeanne Milstein says there is a human cost to the training school that may be immeasurable. She cites videotape showing guards at the school pinning teen-age boys to the floor.

Ms. JEANNE MILSTEIN (Connecticut Child Advocate): You see some of these kids who are being assaulted, and this is what's happened to them all of their lives. And this is the facility that's supposed to protect and care for them, hold them accountable and give them treatment. But instead, they're being assaulted again? What message do we send to these children?

HARRIS: Officials with Connecticut's Department of Children and Families acknowledge problems at the training school, but say they've made dramatic improvements. As the school is shut down, lawmakers and advocates say they will monitor juvenile justice programs a lot more closely. For NPR News, I'm Av Harris in Hartford.

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