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Rell Proposes Closing Training School

Facility For Juveniles Played Role In Rowland's Demise

April 2, 2005

On the day former Gov. John G. Rowland started his prison sentence, his successor raised the specter of shutting down the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, which played a key role in his administration's ethical scandal.

In a letter to Department of Children and Families Commissioner Darlene Dunbar, Gov. M. Jodi Rell expressed frustration that the $57 million maximum-security facility has been unsuccessful at rehabilitating youths and indicated she will recommend that its use as a juvenile training school end.

"It's not simply a question of the building," Rell said Friday in a prepared statement. "It's a question of programming. It's a question of properly addressing the needs of troubled children.

"Incarceration of juvenile offenders is meaningless without a clear focus on education, treatment and rehabilitation."

Built by a subsidiary of the Tomasso Brothers' construction empire, the school has been criticized by legislators, and its possible closing brought sighs of relief Friday from some.

With only 64 boys currently at the 240-bed facility in Middletown, the state is spending more than $500,000 per year per person there. Despite the low number of boys, the state still employs about 365 full-time workers there - more than five employees for each juvenile.

Rell has ordered the Department of Children and Families to create a plan for the school's future and a place for the juveniles if it were closed. Other state agencies, including the governor's budget office and the correction department, will provide input for the report due Aug. 1.

Once touted by state officials as a "world-class" and "state-of-the-art" juvenile correctional center, it is now decried as a white elephant.

Closing it would be "the ultimate failure" of the state's juvenile reform initiatives, said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, the highest-ranking member of the state Senate. "The whole situation is a reminder of the folly of this project, and the corruption that was involved," Williams said.

With the facility's future in doubt, lawmakers on Friday began talking about other possible uses. One suggested it be converted to a public boarding school.

Others, including Williams, said it could potentially become an adult prison. But some lawmakers and Middletown officials opposed that idea.

"To say it would be strongly rejected by the community is an understatement," said Middletown Mayor Domenique Thornton. "I think it would be completely inappropriate next to a mental health facility. It would be a big mistake."

Although Rowland and Tomasso were repeatedly criticized over the facility, some lawmakers said the legislature must share some of the blame. The structure was built to replace Long Lane School in Middletown, which was rocked by the suicide of Tabatha Ann Brendle, 15, of New Britain, in September 1998. Her death was the first in the school's 128-year history, and exposed the facility's deep-rooted problems.

In response, legislative leaders approved spending $57 million for a new training school and decided to "fast-track" the project by waiving the state's bidding requirements. The project emerged at the center of a FBI investigation into contract steering in return for gifts and cash.

Critics have complained that the state moved too swiftly to shut down Long Lane and building the correctional center instead of smaller, regional facilities that research has shown are better for rehabilitating troubled girls and boys.

"The legislature will very often fast-track a whole bunch of stuff without necessarily thinking it through. This is probably one of those examples," said Rep. William R. Dyson, a New Haven Democrat with 29 years of experience at the Capitol.

"Usually, we mess up when we fast-track."

Dyson described the building as a "white elephant," but praised Rell for her stance. "She ought to shut it down," Dyson said.

The facility is mentioned prominently in a 54-page indictment of Rowland's former co-chief of staff, Peter N. Ellef, and William Tomasso of TBI Construction Inc.

Tomasso, Ellef and others went to Ohio to tour a correctional facility that later became the model for the Middletown facility, and federal prosecutors charge that the trip gave Tomasso an unfair advantage over other contractors.

Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, one of Rowland's harshest critics, said the timing of Rell's announcement Friday was ironic.

"It's particularly appropriate because Rowland is going to jail today," Lawlor said. "The only shame is Rowland isn't reporting to CJTS today."

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein have criticized the training school's operations over the past four years and warned that it was unsafe. They said children were being improperly restrained and not receiving appropriate therapy.

School staff staged several protests over what was described as unsafe working conditions that resulted from confusion as to whether it was a prison or school focusing on rehabilitation.

In May 2004, eight workers were hurt during a violent weekend at the school. The wrist of one was broken and another's nose was broken. No children were injured. A month later, Milstein and Blumenthal released a videotape that they said showed staff members assaulting and mistreating a youth.

Union leaders representing training school employees said they have been hounding authorities to improve conditions at the school for years.

"It shouldn't have been built the way it is," said Salvatore Luciano, president of Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "It's built like a prison, and would probably function better as a prison."

Rep. Gail K. Hamm, D-East Hampton, whose district includes a portion of Middletown, said she would like to see the training school converted into a community college or magnet school.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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