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Despite concerns from advocacy groups and some local officials, Gov. Ned Lamont said Friday that he may recommend as early as next week to house migrant children in a former juvenile prison in Middletown.
Lamont said that he is not looking at other alternatives like the 1,600-acre Southbury Training School and is instead focusing on the highly secure Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown that was closed in 2018 by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“It’s ready to go,” Lamont said. “It’s got the classrooms. It’s got the cafeterias. It’s got the soccer fields, and it’s got the basketball. So I think that we can represent to the federal government that if they want Connecticut to take some of these immigrant kids, this is probably as safe and as wholesome a place as we can come up with.”
Lamont was personally asked by Vice President Kamala Harris recently if Connecticut could provide space for some of the thousands of children who are being kept in detention centers along the Texas border after fleeing from their Central American countries. Their numbers have increased as the federal government is facing a border crisis. The initial request to Connecticut is for temporary housing for 90 days, but that could be extended “for a few hundred kids,” Lamont said at an unrelated news conference in Barkhamsted.
But the revelation earlier this week that the state planned to house migrant children at a former juvenile jail didn’t sit well with some officials in Middletown, including Mayor Ben Florsheim.
“Taking kids out of cages in the Southwest and moving them into cages in the Northeast is not an immigration policy,” Florsheim told WVIT-TV, NBC Connecticut Thursday. “This is a literal decommissioned child prison. It’s a detention facility.”
In messages on Twitter, Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said he had “a lot” of questions about the proposal and “as it stands I have concerns.”
Florsheim and Lesser did not return calls from The Courant Friday.
The Connecticut Justice Alliance’s executive director, Christina Quaranta, said the Middletown prison should be dropped as an option because the secure facility “was not built to care for, support, or heal youth — especially youth already going through such significant trauma.’'
“Even if all evidence that [the training school] is a maximum security, hardware secure facility is removed, it still remains a large, cinderblock building, with inadequate living space for young people,” she said.
Quaranta called on Lamont to “bring together a group of culturally, linguistically, subject matter competent, non-governmental folks” to examine the situation, including individuals experienced working with children who are refugees or unaccompanied minors.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut wrote on Twitter Thursday: “Children should be in safe, caring environments where they’re protected from deportation & can heal from trauma. Children DON’T belong in cages. Prisons, once closed, must be demolished to prevent them fro being resurrected, including for use against children coming to the U.S.”
Asked Friday if he had concerns that the Middletown facility will feel too much like a prison and is an inappropriate place to house children, Lamont said he did not.
“Come visit,” Lamont told a reporter. “I visited there last week. I had no idea what to expect. Cafeterias, classrooms, big outdoor recreation, indoor rec areas. I think the federal government would come in and make sure that when it came to where people actually sleep, they can do that in a way that the kids feel safe and feel like they’re at home. It’s secure, but it’s also welcoming.’'
Citing the state commissioner of children and families regarding wrap-around services for the children, Lamont said, “It’s the people who take care of these kids, and we would make sure that they are well taken care of.”
The federal government will be paying 100% of the costs.
“This is going to be done on a turn-key basis by the federal government - no out-of-pocket costs to the taxpayers of Connecticut 1/4 u201a’’ he said, adding that non-profits could be paid to provide some services.
Concerning the time frame, Lamont said, “The feds are pushing, no question about it. We’re going to give them a recommendation early next week - once we’ve had a chance to talk to a few more people. Then the timing is up to them.’'
Christopher Keating can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org