Awarded Best Student Magazine in the Country by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2021!

Welcome To Detention

A few blocks west of Yale University, on a gritty stretch of Whalley Avenue where disheveled old men gather in the morning with paper bags full of scotch, sits a squat tan building where children were beaten, routinely, as recently as a decade and a half ago in what was then one of three abysmal juvenile detention centers in Connecticut.

Juvenile Detention Center, New Haven. Jane Long

A few blocks west of Yale University, on a gritty stretch of Whalley Avenue where young men set up carts in the morning selling used cassettes and greasy hotdogs, sits a squat tan building where children are given the chance to play, to learn, and to start over, in what may now be the best juvenile detention center in the country.

What happened?

The answer lies partly in children charged with delinquency, assault, robbery, and sometimes nothing at all, who found someone to fight on their behalf. It lies partly in an obscure document from 1997: a consent decree, approved by a federal court to settle a 1993 class action lawsuit against the state’s juvenile detention centers. But mostly, the answer lies in a decade and a half of hard work carried out by a handful of individuals who believed that Connecticut’s most at-risk youth deserved more than solitary confinement and systemic abuse.


The New Haven Juvenile Detention Center is a holding ground. Children are brought here on charges of assault, sexual assault, robbery, or because they have broken probation. They are ordered to detention while they wait for court dates, or for the state to figure out where to put them. But juvenile detention is never a final destination, never the place for a sentence to be carried out. The average time a child spends in the Center is less than two weeks. In the early 1990s, however, juvenile detention in Connecticut was closer to hell than to purgatory.

“We had conditions of confinement that no one was especially happy with,” says Bill Carbone, executive director of the Court Support Services Division (CSSD), the part of the Connecticut Judicial Branch tasked with managing juvenile detention. “In addition to overcrowding, we didn’t feel we had the appropriate medical or mental health services or recreation services.” Detainees were forced to sleep in pairs on the floor of small, overcrowded cells. Medicine, surgery, and food were withheld from the children. Tackling, hitting, and twisting the limbs of youth were all encouraged as disciplinary tactics. Connecticut’s two other juvenile detention facilities are in Hartford and Bridgeport, two of the state’s most dangerous cities during the 1990s. In all three Centers, the state swept its youngest troublemakers off the streets and, for lack of a better option, forced them into detention.

Joe Mirto has been a Juvenile Detention Officer at the New Haven Center for twenty years. He is one of fifty-five JDOs, the direct care staff responsible for the wellbeing of the detainees on a minute-to-minute basis. Mirto is a small, pale man with a pointed nose and a slight paunch. He moves slowly and jokes easily, but sometimes, like when he talks about “back then,” he is somber. He remembers the days when the average daily population in the Center was over 40 children, though capacity was just 24 back then. Everything–doctors, beds, patience–was in short supply.

In 1993, conditions were so bad that then-director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union Martha Stone filed a lawsuit against the state’s three juvenile detention centers. “We had been notified by the public defender’s office about overcrowding,” recalls Stone. “The places were in poor condition – there were not enough services, especially mental health services, for the children.” Stone’s class-action lawsuit, Emily J  v Weicker, was filed on behalf of eight specific children and, more broadly, all the young people detained in New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford. The suit accused the state Judicial Department, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and the three city education departments of 114 kinds of mistreatment and neglect of detained youth.

In 1995, two years after Stone filed Emily J, the suit was still stuck in the courts when the Director of Detention Services, Tom White, decided to try to move it along. White asked Stone and the federal court to settle the case in a consent decree, rather than continue the case through a trial and a potentially lengthy appeals process. In doing so, he acknowledged the merit of many of Stone’s allegations and agreed to work towards her proposed changes. “I felt that the conditions in the centers were unacceptable,” White explained. “If we felt we wanted to make dramatic changes to detention in the state, why fight the lawsuit when we could partner with the court and the CCLU under the consent decree?” Doing so, White explained, would be less expensive in the long term and would give the state a court-ordered reason to continue to improve conditions.

The 1997 consent decree and additional agreements negotiated in 2002 and 2005 have transformed the Connecticut juvenile detention centers from some of the worst in the nation to some of the best. Today, Connecticut is the only state nationwide whose public juvenile detention centers are accredited by both the American Correctional Association (ACA) and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), the two standard-bearing organizations in the field. These accreditations are not nominal. To be accredited by ACA alone, detention facilities must go through an involved, three-year process that measures more than four hundred criteria, down to the types of screws used in window frames.  Dual accreditation signals that the Connecticut centers are among the most progressive in the nation, emphasizing detention as an opportunity not just to house children but to rehabilitate them. The New Haven Center scored above 99% on both accreditations, an unprecedented feat.

The progress has been a direct result of the original lawsuit filed by Martha Stone. It is no surprise, then, that the allegations Stone laid out in the “statement of facts” portion of her lawsuit act as a guide to the biggest changes that were needed, and made, in the New Haven Center over the last decade and a half. The difference, says current New Haven detention superintendent Jack Fitzgerald, is night and day. But really, the difference is Fitzgerald. For it was he – a silver-haired, professorish man who talks just as frequently about feelings as about actions – who brought on the dawn.

“1993 Statement of Facts

Description of Plaintiffs:
Michael is sleeping on the floor because of the overcrowding, locked in a room with another child.”

After four consecutive years of decline in the number of juveniles detained in Connecticut, the state’s detention centers began to crowd again in 2010. Owing to Stone’s lawsuit, the New Haven Center, at least, is better equipped to deal with the uptick. It has improved medical and mental health services, recreational options, education, and disciplinary tactics. But most obvious to the naked eye are the changes to the building itself.

Superintendent since 1999, Fitzgerald is a congenial man with small, piercing eyes behind round silver frames. He is tall, a commanding presence softened by tweed jackets, nubby sweaters, and a constant, vaguely Southern-sounding “ya know?” that punctuates his sentences. On first impression, and even second, he seems more like a librarian than a warden. Fitzgerald has perfected the air of a man charged with overseeing a high-stress environment: relaxed but unquestionably firm. And at the core of his work is his conviction that he runs a detention center, not a prison. He seems to have a personal stake in the distinction.

The consent decree mandated better living conditions, and Fitzgerald obliged. “The original plant was poorly designed for children,” he explains. “It was more like a prison than any prison we had built for adults.” The interior had minimal recreation space. Sparse, dark rooms tripled as classrooms, rec rooms and spaces for group meetings. The building was devoid of any natural light. For twenty-four hours a day, children lived, worked and fought under a dull fluorescent glow. “The rooms were dark, dank,” he says. “The upkeep of the painting wasn’t done.” In the cells, beds – of which there were usually too few – were steel platforms jutting out of the wall a few feet from a steel toilet. Children who didn’t have a bed got a sleeping pad on the floor.

Perhaps because they no longer feel like jail cells, no one who works in the Center calls them “cells” anymore. They are “individual bedrooms” on the “residential side” of the building. Now, each small room has a bunk bed made from smooth, curved tan plastic that matches a few other pieces of furniture in the room. The bed looks, if not quite like a bed, at least like a comfortable resting place in a child’s jungle gym. On each bunk is a thin mattress and the types of pillows, sheets, and blankets you would find at an airport motel. There are no toilets in the renovated bedrooms. “You shouldn’t have to go to the bathroom in front of anyone else,” says Fitzgerald. There is still little natural light on the residential side – just a square foot of glass close to the ceiling of each room – but the overall effect, Fitzgerald says, is a vast improvement. He is right. A room full of plastic furniture and no light can’t be called inviting, but at least it does not feel like punishment.

In the 1990s, overcrowding compounded the already depressing conditions, making the Center unbearable. Today, JDOs like Joe Mirto work one or two of three eight-hour shifts at the Center. When it was filled above capacity in the 1990s, Mirto remembers, Fitzgerald would need to staff twelve JDOs on each of the two daytime shifts and six JDOs on the graveyard shift from midnight to eight in the morning – in total, six more officers daily than he now needs. Back then, Mirto recalls with a shake of his head, everyone was stretched thin.

Today, capacity in the facility is 42, but no more than twelve are generally there on a given day. Until 2005, children identified by DCF, Connecticut’s child welfare agency, as members of Families With Service Needs (FWSN) were detained in the Center. “They didn’t have to have done anything illegal,” says Joe Ezekiel, one of Fitzgerald’s deputies. “FWSN (pronounced fwiz-en) kids could be running away from home, skipping school, having sex too young – anything that made the parents nervous. The parents could ask DCF for help.” Throughout the 1990s, most of the children in detention were designated as FWSN kids. By the time Martha Stone filed Emily J, the state had filled one of the more violent detention centers in the country beyond capacity with children who often hadn’t actually broken the law.

In 2005, Connecticut decriminalized FWSN so that in most cases, children could no longer be placed into detention merely for worrying their parents. The population at all three centers has dropped dramatically as a result.

The biggest changes to the building are the most recent. In September 2008, New Haven finished construction on two new classrooms, an administrative wing, a weight room, two recreation rooms, a recreation office, and a gymnasium with high glass windows that fill the entire new wing with natural light. The extra space has given the Center more options for how to keep children occupied throughout the day. “These changes impact the rest of the environment,” says Fitzgerald. “We build our programming so that kids can be in that area, exposed to the natural light as much as possible.”

Fitzgerald speaks constantly about bringing light to the building, not just for the children, but for the staff who spend their days inside. One of the worst parts about working in the Center in the 1990s, he says, was that no matter which shift you worked in the winter – 12am to 8am, 8am to 4pm, or 4pm to 12am – it would still be dark on the way to work, dark all day inside the building, and dark again when the shift was over. “You could go entire weeks without seeing really any natural sunlight,” he explained. “Can you imagine? And if the staff were so down because of this – how must the kids feel?”

Fitzgerald is good at his job and the New Haven Center is one of the best nationwide precisely because the superintendent makes it a point to imagine how the kids feel. Every other week, he has lunch alone with the children, using the time to ask what they would change about the Center. Often, Mirto says, Fitzgerald takes these suggestions.

“Michael has been diagnosed as having a systolic heart murmur and an umbilical hernia. Although he is in need of an operation, he has not yet received it.”

Before Emily J, remembers Joe Mirto, the Center’s veteran JDO, medical care was almost nonexistent. Mirto talks often of the years when the job was done differently. “We had a med box that we kept in the control room,” he says. “It wasn’t kept locked. A lot of kids come in here on controlled substances – lithium, Ritalin, Depakote. The kids would line up outside the window and we’d yell out for him: ‘Jimmy, it’s time for your lithium.’ We realized, if I’m a fifteen year old kid, I’m probably not too happy if that’s being yelled out in front of everybody.”

In conversation, Mirto is careful never to tell stories of specific children. He makes oblique references: Imagine if you were fifteen… When you come into the Center with mental health issues… Probably, the references are composites – the common tendencies of boys and girls he has seen over almost twenty years in the Center. But in his plainspoken way, the habit seems respectful, as though the children who confide in him have a right not to have their vulnerabilities shared with the world.

Back then, medical care began and ended with that med box. About a third of the children were given no physical examination while in the Center. Doctors were only available a few days a week, so staff with no medical training performed the exams instead. According to Stone’s federal complaint, children were admitted to the general population of detainees “with significant communicable diseases such as hepatitis, chicken pox, measles, and staph infections, as well as conditions such as ring worm, lice, and scabies” because there was nowhere to quarantine them.

The consent decree brought major changes in the medical treatment given to children in the Center, according to Bill Carbone of the Judicial Branch. Doctors and nurses are now available around the clock in the medical suite, a small room that looks exactly like an elementary school nurse’s office, complete with the requisite posters (“How to Prevent the Common Cold,” “Abstinence lets you choose your future”). Medicine is no longer dispensed by the line staff, but by a licensed nurse.  Yale psychiatrists regularly examine those on psychotropic medication. Every child is given a physical, and children in need are taken to dentists. For some, this is the first check-up they’ve had in years. For others, it is their first check-up ever.

Medical care was one of the easier things to improve in the building, it seems. Carbone, who controls most of the New Haven Center’s budget, was “very insightful of the need” for better healthcare, says Fitzgerald, and the superintendent was thankful for this. “You can’t do this on the cheap,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s kids lives we’re talking about.”

“Emily has not received any counseling or other mental health interventions.

She has gone to bed crying at night.”

By the time a child reaches the New Haven Juvenile Detention Center, he or she has usually seen things that would drive most adults to therapy. Though detention isn’t intended as a permanent residence, both Joe Mirto and Jack Fitzgerald understand that some kids don’t want to go home. “Some kids are going home to things that are worse than what they have here,” says Mirto. “Mom may have five other kids. She might be 33, and I’m a fifteen-year-old kid and I come home at night and see her on the couch… you know… with a man. You can understand how that would make me feel.”

Single mothers aren’t the worst of it. A 2001 study published in the Review of Psychiatry series found that over 90% of children in juvenile detention in America have experienced at least one traumatic incident. Often, this includes physical or sexual abuse, or domestic, community, or gang violence. It should be no surprise, then, that depression and suicidal thoughts are common among youth in detention. Yet before Emily J, children with mental health needs were not counseled – they were reprimanded for acting out. “From what I understand, fifteen years ago, it was a largely punitive system,” says Donna MacComber, Director of Social Problem Solving Training (SPST), a program that educates children at the New Haven Center about how to manage stressful situations. “There were very few therapeutic opportunities.”

Today, an awareness of mental health and suicide prevention is behind everything the children do. WELCOME TO DETENTION reads a letter taped to the desk on the intake room where children are sent when they first arrive. It continues: The first thing you need to know is that you are safe. You are going to be fine. We are here to help you. Welcome. – Jack Fitzgerald. “We try to make the process as comfortable as possible for the child, to explain every step,” he says. “It’s not supposed to be prison.” Fitzgerald’s own appearance echoes this. As he makes his way around the building, stopping to meet with children and go over paperwork with staff, he clasps a white ceramic coffee mug with “MICKEY!” painted in bright red letters under a picture of the grinning cartoon mouse. It is difficult to feel scared of a grown man toting Mickey Mouse.

It is easier to be scared of other parts of the Center. Later in the welcome letter taped to the intake desk, the seventh thing a child needs to know is this: A staff person who is the same sex as you is going to do a strip search of you. No one is going to touch you. They will have you go in the shower area and have you remove your clothes and observe you from several feet away. This is to make sure you have no injuries. The letter is calm, understanding, even comforting, but upsetting nonetheless. The same might be said of the Center itself.

During intake, children are screened for traumatic events that may have occurred in the past. They are asked about school, family and friends, as well as about their history with alcohol, drugs, and other red flags. “We aren’t just looking for how they answer the questions verbally,” says Ezekiel, Fitzgerald’s deputy. “We pay attention to how they say it, if they’re forthcoming.”

What they’re looking for, among other things, is how closely the child needs to be watched. In response to Stone’s contention that the Center made no effort at suicide prevention, Fitzgerald installed a watch system. Next to every residential room is a small, circular metal “hit pad.” When children are in their rooms, a JDO is responsible for “the pipe,” a data recorder that looks like a flashlight with no bulb at the end. Every fifteen minutes, the JDO must walk the line of rooms, looking through the doors at each child and touching the pipe to each hit pad. The pipe’s internal data recorder keeps a history of the times that the pipe made contact with each hit pad. At the end of each day, the information in the pipe is downloaded onto a computer that charts the hits, showing Fitzgerald that his charges are being cared for. Children who raise suspicion during their intake screening – through what they say, how they sit, whether they make eye contact – are checked every four minutes rather than every fifteen. And about once every two months, the Center has a child on “constant” – acute suicide watch that requires a JDO to be within arm’s length of the child 24 hours a day.

Staff note how seriously Fitzgerald takes what he refers to as the most pervasive suicide prevention plan in the country. “Jack will never take a kid off constant,” says Ezekiel. “He doesn’t feel he is medically trained to judge mental health with such high stakes, and so he will keep a kid on constant, even if the JDOs think the kid doesn’t need it, until the child can be examined by a trained mental health professional.”

Fitzgerald defends this paranoia. “A kid doesn’t have to say they have a plan to hurt themselves for me to put them on constant. If I feel he doesn’t look right – that’s good enough for me.” The bottom line, he says, is this: “I am their guardian here. I am responsible not just to the court, but to their parents.” Because he has children of his own, Fitzgerald says, he tries to give other parents’ children the same attention that he would want his kids to have if the situation were reversed.

Ezekiel is more blunt: “Kids harm themselves,” he says. “If they’re doubled up, they might harm each other. This way, they know we’re always watching them.”

The watch system is just a small part of what is now a facility-wide hyperawareness of mental health. The once-idle afternoon hours have been filled with group counseling sessions and education programs developed by psychologists. These programs – Social Problem Solving Training (SPST) and Trauma Adaptive Recovery Group Education and Therapy (TARGET) – encourage children to talk about their feelings and experiences and teach them how to best manage the two in a way that won’t land them back in custody, or dead.

Even before the Center started running SPST and TARGET in response to the consent decree, Mirto says, he operated under the philosophy that the children in the New Haven Center needed to be taught how to articulate their darkest thoughts. If a child acts out, he says, he rarely chooses to “punish” the child. “I’d rather talk you down – teach you how to calm down.”

It is difficult to tell, in 2009, if Mirto really did have an awareness of mental health in the early 1990s, but the evidence is strong: of the more than fifty JDOs who work in New Haven, Mirto is the only one who has spent his career representing children in hearings when they act out in detention and face disciplinary measures, like solitary room time. Mirto insists on advocating for minimal punishment even for the children who are in trouble for disrespecting Mirto himself. For this, he has earned the nickname “Crazy Joe”: crazy, he laughs, because he is nearly impossible to anger.

“William has not been outside since being incarcerated except for a one and a half hour furlough for a funeral and a preplacement visit.

Outside the Center, a basketball court sits waiting for good weather. If it weren’t for the fact that entering the Center’s indoor gymnasium requires going through many locked doors that must be opened by staff, recreation here would feel like that in any middle school gym, complete with professional looking floors and a hoop for half-court ball. The walls are covered with standard blue gym mats for safe games of tag, and the ceilings are high, giving a sense of freedom to the place. The weight room adjacent to the gym looks like a small sports club: treadmill, bike, free weights, weight machines, and exercise balls fill the space. “The boys spend a lot of time here,” says Ezekiel.

In the 1990s, recreation at the Center, if it existed at all, consisted of cards and outdoor basketball. Girls sat idly while boys monopolized the court. On cold days, there was nowhere to move around, so everyone sat idly, staring at a TV in a room that might have also housed English class earlier that day. Because school and group counseling only lasts from about 8am to 4pm, Fitzgerald now schedules structured recreation to fill the hours between counseling and bedtime at 9 or 10pm. “We want you to be a kid here, too,” he says. “Recreation is an important part of being a kid. We try to create environments here where you can thrive, where it’s not just basketball every day.” A typical monthly rec schedule rotates small groups around different sports and activities one might find at a summer camp: Knockout, Reading, Weight Room, Sorry, Checkers, Spelling Bee, Blob Tag, Crossword Puzzles, Wiffle Ball, Drawing, Obstacle Course. Shattered is the stereotypical scene of lifting barbells in a prison yard.

Around the Center, rec rooms are filled with art supplies, Ping Pong tables, Guitar Hero, and board games. One locked cabinet holds real African drums – “two grand each, at least,” says Ezekiel – that the Connecticut Ballet uses on Monday nights when they visit the Center to teach the kids about African music and dance. The Open World Leadership Center funds trips to New Haven for visiting dignitaries. Last year, the Chief Justice of Liberia came to speak to the children, says Fitzgerald. “That’s like Chief Justice Roberts coming to speak in your classroom, ya know?”

“Michael’s educational program has not been more than two hours a day. Because on many occasions it consisted of watching nature films, he has not been attending school.”

Every day, Mrs. Michaud begins English class in the Center with the same greeting: “Good morning my shining stars.” The classrooms at the Center look like a regular middle school, and the students are treated, to the best of everyone’s ability, like they would be “on the outside.” In Michaud’s room, rows of individual desks – grey metal tabletops and maroon chairs bolted together – face a SmartBoard that doubles as a slide projector. In the far corner, her desk is piled high with files, papers, and framed photographs of her family. The walls are covered with possible role models: Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, John F. Kennedy, Rodin. Everywhere, students are confronted with people meant to inspire them.

This classroom didn’t exist until Emily J. “Before, we were tight,” says Fitzgerald. “Your learning space was a multipurpose room; you might have been in those rooms for sixteen hours a day doing recreation. It was not a school environment.”  For kids with learning disabilities, spending rec time in a room used for education made it difficult to differentiate between the two. “Now, you have a classroom that looks like a real classroom. It’s normal. It promotes the mindset that what they’re doing here is real school.”

Until 2000, “real school” would have been a stretch of a description. The New Haven Board of Education was responsible for the education of detainees. Today, the teachers are staff of Area Cooperative Educational Services, a private company that specializes in alternative and special-needs education. Darrylle Olsen, the current math teacher, remembers that the public school teachers who preceded her at the Center assigned mostly “busywork out of old textbooks.” Children were grouped by age or by school grade: “a nightmare,” says Olsen, because kids were coming from vastly different backgrounds. In order to focus the mostly-special-needs youth enough to be able to actually teach something, Olsen realized early on the importance of having the right surroundings.

“First we had big, ugly round tables with sand in the bottom so the kids couldn’t flip them, and mushroom chairs with weights in the bottom so the kids couldn’t throw them,” says Olsen. “Then we had long folding tables, and the kids would pull the screws out and they would collapse. It was ugly, depressing, and dark – not conducive to good learning. The visual aspects of this room are a lot brighter now.”

Ten years ago, Olsen showed up for her first day on the job fearful of what she might find. She was pleasantly surprised, not by her classroom, but by the children. “They liked learning,” she recalls. “They liked people treating them with respect.”

Today, children are grouped based on behavior and maturity levels, not age or academic ability. Because the average child is in the center for less than two weeks, “lessons start and end in a day,” says Olsen. “That way, kids can pick up where we are without feeling they’ve missed a bunch prior.” Teaching at the Center requires flexibility. “If a child doesn’t write well, we use verbal cues,” she says. “We do different forms of communication, so the kid who’s a struggling reader can still succeed.” Olsen doesn’t use formal testing, choosing instead to look over her students’ work to make sure they have understood their lessons. “A lot of these kids have a tough time with formal testing. The word test brings up a lot of anxiety.”

Fitzgerald takes special pride in the educational environment he has created. “I went to my daughter’s school when we were designing the new classrooms,” he says. “See the color of the tile on these floors? Bright yellow – it’s so warm, so happy.” He points to the paint trim around the hallways and inside the classrooms: “Maroon and Connecticut Blue, the same colors that are inside public schools across the state. It looks like the outside world. We want them to feel like their life here is as normal as possible.”

When Fitzgerald speaks, as he so often does, about making the children feel comfortable in detention, he makes clear that even the guilty ones – the ones who have robbed, or raped, or shot at someone, and landed back in detention on a violation of parole – aren’t monsters or burdens inside his walls. They are sons and daughters. Inside detention, ironically, is the closest many of these children will come to a normal childhood.

“Ramon has witnessed staff hurting children by bending their arms and legs until they cry, slamming them on the floor, and dragging them across the rug.”

Fitzgerald knows that most kids come to the Center fearful. “Their only glimpses of detention come from shows like Lockup Raw,” he says. In the 1990s, those fears would have been justified. Perhaps nowhere are the changes in the New Haven Center as noticeable as in the use of discipline. Until Emily J brought the practices to the attention of the courts, the line staff in the Center were beating children as young as eight years old on a regular basis. “We used to restrain kids using very barbaric and crude methods,” recalls Joe Mirto. Training was purely physical: karate, jujitsu, submission holds. Mirto remembers working an overnight shift and being taken by the local FBI into a back classroom around three in the morning. “They taught us how to kick, punch, how to hit with the heel of our hand.” At the time, it was standard operating procedure. “We used to use something called an arm bar a lot. That’s when you lift a child’s arm behind his back, whichever arm you want, as far as you can go without breaking it.”

Room confinement was the other major form of discipline before Emily J. “If a kid swore at you in 1991, he or she was probably given ‘room time,’” says Mirto. “We’d use a method of punishment called stacking. If you were a kid, and you told me to go reproduce myself, you got 24 hours of room confinement. If you told me to fuck off when I gave you room time, you’d get another 24 hours stacked on the first 24 for basically the same offense.”

Staff in the 1990s resorted to violence and room time because they were not trained on how to treat the children as anything but criminals. “If the only thing a carpenter had was a hammer and nail,” explains Karl Alston, now deputy director of juvenile residential services for CSSD, “that’s all he would use. But if he had a full toolbag – his router, his screwdriver, the hammer and nail, a saw – he’d be more productive. That’s how we look at our staff. The more we give them tools to use, the better our environments will be.”

Both Mirto and Fitzgerald are quick to point out that the Center now strives to minimize room time and physical submission. When Fitzgerald came to the facility as superintendent in 1999, he started by retraining the staff. “In reality, the JDOs are closer to your parent than your prison guard,” he says. “They needed to start thinking that way, in order for the kids to start thinking that way.”

Training is no longer on how to hit a child effectively. It was imperative to Fitzgerald that staff be trained “not to react, but to interact. We spent more time on interaction, communication, avoiding conflict. When they learned those concepts, it transformed the facility.”

The job of a juvenile detention officer can lend itself to power trips, and some still have their moments, says Mirto. “Some staff think they’re officers. We’re not really officers. I’m a caretaker. I take care of your kids.”

Most of the boys who come through the Center have no positive male figure in their lives. It is paramount to Mirto, he says, that he act as a role model, not another disappointment. He is known throughout the Center for his hesitance to lay a hand on a child. “Regardless of what your child may have done – murder, rape, not going to school – I take care of your child. Do I get mad? Of course I do. Do I abuse them? No way.”

As Fitzgerald points out often, the New Haven Center’s dual accreditation by the American Correctional Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care place it among the best in the nation. In his office, the certificates from the first time New Haven was accredited in 2003 hang behind his desk, so that guests who sit and face him cannot help but notice.

His voice swells with pride when he talks about working on that first accreditation. “When I was preparing for ACA, I called fifty facilities in the country that had been through the process to really learn how it was done and what we had to do.” Like many of those facilities, New Haven was motivated by a court order to make changes to the facility. But unlike most, the Center, under Fitzgerald’s leadership, decided to try for regular reaccreditation every three years. “We want to continually test ourselves against the national waters, to ensure that we are continually at the forefront of juvenile detention.”

The accrediting organizations look for excellence in all of the areas where the Emily J consent decree ordered change: living conditions, medical and mental health care, recreation, education, discipline. And by those organizations’ standards, thanks to the hard work of people like Jack Fitzgerald and to the empathy of people like Joe Mirto, the New Haven Center is nearly perfect.

But what does it mean to be the perfect juvenile detention center?  What does it mean to be the best of all the futures that parents fear for their children: the best of all the places no one wants to end up?

Group therapy and real classrooms and African drums can go a long way towards making a child forget that the rest of the world sees him as a criminal. But when beds made of plastic and not metal are a victory, when strip searches are routine and when privacy is an unrealistic wish – through no fault of Fitzgerald’s, or Mirto’s, or maybe anyone’s at all – the shadow of being in an institution will always preclude some light from shining through.

Nonetheless, it is important work to try to give children their youth back. And the detainees that Fitzgerald and Mirto care for are just that: children. They are young, and have been taught badly by the people and places where they grew up. Thanks to Emily J, the staff in the New Haven Center understand that it is someone’s duty not only to teach these children but to teach them well. You are worth teaching, Fitzgerald seems to say.

More Stories
Not Hungry