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What Plato Said

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jason Bowns
March 28, 2022

The town of Cheshire is any bystander’s vision of life in a typical New England town.

Along Highland Avenue, there’s a Subway sandwich shop, Stop & Shop supermarket, Dunkin’ Donuts and the local Department of Motor Vehicles testing center. With its modest population of just 28,733 after the 2020 census, Cheshire is rated as one of America’s safest cities.

As home to historic Cheshire Academy founded in 1794, its graduates go on to attend competitive colleges including Yale University in nearby New Haven. Industrialist J.P. Morgan, two Connecticut governors and author Robert Ludlum who created the infamous Jason Bourne book character of action movie fame, are among this preparatory school’s distinguished alumni.

Despite an air of normalcy, that charming Cheshire roadside scenery manifests a different realm after turning from Highland onto Jarvis Street. There, Manson Youth Institution rests downhill on the right with its brick-like fortress building bordered by a winding scribble of razor wire.

Manson houses young adults and teenagers under the age of 22. Minors—inmates under the age of 18—live in a pair of separate housing units known as “Hope Hill.” Welcoming those who walk across the pavement, entering Hope Hill’s fenced in domain, is a huge, painted white dove underfoot bearing an olive branch. Inside the buildings, central common areas are open spaces linking each cell wing. Colorful murals adorn the walls and reflect symbols of transformation.

In one scene, a smiling youth gazes at a happy road with bad patterns left behind, represented by a tombstone etched with R.I.P. Another area shows a figure half unkempt and the other half wearing a graduation hat and vibrant blue suit. That’s a nod at what an inmate can become. The design oddly resembles split depictions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The Department of Correction’s education system is known as Unified School District #1 with its Latin slogan, “Non Sum Qualis Eram.” Translated, that means “I am not what I was.”

Manson is the epicenter of an ongoing debate about kids, crime and justice. There’s a push to impose accountability upon those who harm society by committing crimes.

Accountability comes quicker for some. Many Manson youths are in pre-trial proceedings, charged as adults, and they haven’t been convicted. High or no bail keeps them in custody for now. They stay in institutional purgatory until they’re sentenced or otherwise released.

Some research suggests that the human brain isn’t fully developed until age 24, which advocates argue is a mitigating circumstance for young people charged with crimes. If children face felony charges before or after trial, then should a judge or jury send kids to prisons like Manson?

Even when that happens, incarcerated youths must attend school at Manson under Connecticut’s compulsory education law. Some are also protected by statutory mandates which include receiving a “free and appropriate education,” as well as special education services pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. A U.S. Department of Justice investigation identified violations of those provisions at Manson’s school in a December 2021 final report.

These recent dilemmas aren’t unique.

Over two thousand years ago, Greek philosopher Plato, too, asked, “What is justice?” His book, The Republic, envisioned a human soul made of three forces: reason, spirit and appetite.

Reason is the part “that tracks and pursues what is good for the whole soul also loves wisdom.” From spirit comes the pursuit of “social preeminence and honor.” Appetite “seeks material satisfaction for bodily urges, and because money better than anything else provides for this, people ruled by appetite often come to love money above all.”

Plato wonders if committing wrongs is even worth the price and asks, “What shall he profit, if his injustice be undetected and unpunished? He who is undetected only gets worse…”

The better path is instead after “[h]e who is detected and punished has the brutal part of his nature silenced and humanized; the gentler element in him is liberated, and his whole soul is perfected and ennobled by the acquirement of justice and temperance and wisdom…”

The Republic compares wisdom with city order, noting “[It] is seen also in the authority which we exercise over children, and the refusal to let them be free until we have established in them a principle analogous to the constitution of a state.” In other words, children need time to grow.

Educating youths offers an answer when “by cultivation of this higher element [they] have set up in their hearts a guardian and ruler like our own…” Plato suggests that it begins with children learning to master choices and impulses until “when this is done, they may go their ways.”

So, justice only comes when reason can rule over the forces of spirit and appetite. Following that, “He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occurs in it…”

Manson Youth Institution is, in many ways, a city unto itself, setting the limits of inmates’ whole world for as long as they stay. Their question then becomes, “How do we find that city within?”

Author: Jason Bowns is a proud graduate of New York University and earned his Master in Public Administration degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Inspector General training program. A certified social studies teacher, Bowns has worked in a variety of educational settings and is especially interested in juvenile justice, penology, and public sector ethics. Contact him at [email protected].

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