Rising prison population dampens hopes of budget relief

Connecticut’s prison population stood poised Tuesday to record its fourth consecutive monthly increase, a trend likely to put a damper hopes that a prison closure could help balance the state’s budget.

The latest surge in the inmate population, which approached 18,600 Tuesday, was attributed largely to an unanticipated jump in the number of unsentenced prisoners.

While the new population is up more than 500 prisoners from January’s opening week average, and about 300-400 inmates beyond the level projected for this point in the year, it still remains well below the daily peak of 19,894 reached in February 2008.

“We still believe we’re generally consistent with our projected range of population” for this time, said Office of Policy and Management Undersecretary OPM Undersecretary Brian Austin Jr., who leads agency’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division. He added that earlier forecasts calling for the population to shrink modestly by year’s end, and then begin to stabilize, still appear viable. “We’re still very confident with that.”

The criminal justice division, which analyzes prison population trends each month, reported an average population of 18,500 for the opening week of August. That was 320 prisoners above the projected level and 56 above the July average, marking the third successive month of growth.

And though an opening average for September will be compiled over the next week, Correction Department spokesman Brian Garnett said Tuesday the system’s population entered the month at 18,596. If the September average remains above August totals, it would be the first time since November 2006 that inmate totals rose four consecutive months or more.

OPM projected average inmate populations of 18,180 for August and 18,323 for September.

Both Austin and Garnett said the prison population routinely swells during summer months, when criminal activity traditionally is greater, particularly in urban areas.

As to why the summer population has grown even beyond projections, Austin said that trend is being analyzed.

But Garnett said one factor might be tied to the roughly 4,100 accused-but-not-yet-sentenced inmates being held in correctional facilities.

That total, which is up about 240 unsentenced inmates from August 2009 levels, is one of the most volatile components of the population stream, and can change quickly with a modest upswing in criminal activity or the intensity of police patrols, he said.

Connecticut is one of just six states that hold unsentenced prisons in correctional facilities, rather than in a separate county jails or comparable regional institutions, Garnett said. “Certainly we believe this is seasonal and we expect in the fall or winter we will see some a reduction,” he said.

The correction spokesman added that the additional population has not posed any overcrowding problems for the prison system. “We are very much able to deal with the ebbs and flows of our population.”

But unions representing about 5,200 prison guards and 600 of their immediate supervisors both have argued for much of the past two years that prisons are understaffed to handle the population.

And the spokesman for supervisor’s union, Matt O’Connor, said Tuesday that this problem remains, and might be tied to more than a seasonal trend. “Folks ought to have been able to foresee that as the economy lagged, as many people can’t find good-paying jobs, that inmate populations were going to go up, not down.”

O’Connor added that “we’ve already seen a troubling number of assaults on correction staff this year.”

The criminal justice planning division at OPM projected in its annual forecast released in February that the prison system population would drop modestly during 2010 – despite a summer bump – eventually falling below the year’s opening mark. That was due to steps Connecticut already has taken to rehabilitate more non-violent offenders in community settings rather than in prisons.

That same report also predicted that, along with the some normal fluctuations, prison population levels would remain largely stable over the next two years, absent any major changes in sentencing trends and guidelines ordered by the legislature.

Austin declined to project any specific, revised, year-end population level, but said the division still expects the population to shrink modestly before year’s end, and to remain relatively stable in the next two years.

Despite that forecast, Connecticut politicians have been proposing prison closures as a means to help balance the state’s finances. The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis is projecting a $3.37 billion shortfall built into the 2011-12 budget, an amount equal to nearly 20 percent of current spending.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley suggested during a televised debate on Aug. 3 that a prison could be closed. Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, whom Foley defeated in last month’s GOP gubernatorial primary, also cited a prison closure as a budget-balancing option.

Majority Democrats in the legislature attempted to force the closure of two unnamed prisons in a biennial budget plan adopted on June 26, 2009 – just five days before the beginning of the new fiscal year. But that proposal was part of a bill that also included $2.5 billion in tax and fee hikes over two years, and was vetoed.

Rell announced last December she would close Webster Correctional Institution in Cheshire, one of the state’s smallest prisons with just over 200 beds. The move was expected to save $3.4 million per year, the administration reported.

But given that the prison system, which hasn’t featured a new facility since 1996, was designed to hold about 17,000 inmates, closing any major residential areas could pose a challenge, union officials have said.

Rep. John Geragosian, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he believes most legislators eventually hope to close some prisons, but by continuing to support investments that will bear fruit a few years down the road.

That means funding for supportive housing, education, substance abuse treatment and other key rehabilitative services can stem repeat offenses and help inmates to be productive upon their release, Geragosian said.

“Other states are just letting all kinds of people out of prison now to save money and that is not a path we want to take,” he said.