Rethinking visitation, other policies affecting inmates

Evaristo Pabon just wants to give Luis, his nephew, a hug. But that’s not possible.

“I have to see him through a glass,” Pabon explained, after testifying before the Connecticut Sentencing Commission at the state Capitol complex. Luis has been incarcerated since he was 15 for robbery, Pabon said.

inmate story

Evaristo Pabon asked the state’s Sentencing Commission to change policies that would allow him, among other things, to hug his nephew, who has been in prison since he was 15. With Pabon is his wife, Brenda.

Commission members heard testimony Thursday from advocates and from family members of prisoners and their victims on policy changes that that would ease visiting restrictions and help inmates find housing and a job once they are released.

The glass divide is not the only barrier inmates face. Visits often are also limited to one hour, once a week. Only immediate family members typically are granted visits, and anyone with a felony conviction is denied access.

For Pabon’s nephew, it means his father, who has a felony drug conviction on his record, cannot visit him. “A parent should be able to visit their child. It’s really sad,” Pabon said.

Leo Arnone, commissioner of the Department of Correction, said he is working to overhaul these visitation policies.

“The research shows the more meaningful relationships inmates have, the better their chance at success… We haven’t looked at these policies in 10 years, maybe longer. It’s time,” Arnone said. “I expect a change.”

The Sentencing Commission is considering a proposal that would change visitation policies. The recommendation, to be voted Dec. 20, is aimed at nudging the legislature to create state laws to improve visitation policies.

“People rarely change by themselves. Rather, they tend to make positive changes because of positive close relationships,” the panel’s draft report reads.

And with a recidivism rate of 50 percent to 55 percent recidivism among inmates when they leave prisonl, a consensus that changes are needed is likely among panel members.

Even without legislative action, Arnone has the authority to change visitation policies.

One change he is considering is setting up a process to determine if certain immediate family members with criminal backgrounds should be able to visit their family members.

“Convicted felons as a rule are not allowed to visit inmates indefinitely,” said Arnone. He pointed to a recent case that was brought to his attention where a mother with a 30-year-old felony could not visit her son. “When I got this information, I said ‘Oh, this can’t be right.'”

A second chance

Three recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings could force the state to amend lengthy sentences handed out to juveniles who break the law. The commission is considering a proposal that would outlaw long sentences with no chance of parole for those under 18 who commit crimes.

Juveniles sentenced to 60 years or more would be up for parole after 30 years. Juveniles sentenced to more than 10 years would be eligible for parole halfway through their sentences.

The idea of such a change is upsetting to John Cluny, whose wife and son were murdered in the early 1990s by their 15-year-old neighbor in Norwich.

“I have strong feelings he should be executed, or at least spend his life in prison, not release him,” Cluny said. His

inmate story

The possible easing of sentencing guidelines for those who committed crimes as juveniles upsets Norwich resident John Cluny, whose wife and son were killed in the 1990s by their 15-year-old neighbor.

family’s killer would be eligible for parole after 30 years — or in another 10 years — if the legislature adopts the recommendation.

But the relatives of those children who were sentenced to long prison terms think they deserve a second chance, and dozens spent hours Thursday telling the sentencing panel why.

“I think this is awesome what you are doing,” a teary-eyed Rebecca Torres, whose fiancé is serving a long sentence for a crime he committed as a juvenile.

Connecticut prisons house 192 inmates who entered as juveniles and were sentenced to more than 10 years, 78 of whom are not eligible for parole, according to the State Department of Correction and the Board of Pardons and Parole.

Getting out of jail

When Alexander Ketchum was released from jail for assault and drug charges five years ago, he had nowhere to go.

“I couldn’t get a job. I couldn’t pay rent. I was a burden on my family as a 35-year-old man,” he said.

State legislators recently passed a law that restricts hiring managers at state agencies from asking applicants about their criminal backgrounds or researching their histories until the last step of the hiring process. Private employers are still free to ask.

Another of the panel’s proposals would create a “Certificate of Rehabilitation” that would accompany job and housing applications for former inmates. The intention is to show that the state has evaluated this individual and determined that his or her criminal background is in the past and should not hurt their getting the job or rental property.

“All they need is a chance to get a job to turn their life around… We are losing a lot of human capital and forcing people to be impoverished,” said LaResse Harvey, policy director for Better Way, a New Haven-based organization that advocates for formerly incarcerated individuals. “People should not be afraid to hire them.”

But they are, many former inmates told commission members Thursday.

“I knew my past is why I didn’t get several jobs,” said Ketchum.

It’s also forcing people to be homeless, said Charles Coviello, a realtor from Bridgeport who partners with the Department of Correction to help those leaving jail find housing.

“They show up with no job because they have to check that box on applications… In many cases they are in a homeless shelter. Some of them I have not been able to help,” he told the panel.

Former state Sen. Ernie Newton from Bridgeport, and a convicted felon himself, urged the panel to consider recommending that past convictions be hidden so people are truly given a second chance.

“Put some teeth in the proposal,” he said.

There is a process in which past offenders can have their records pardoned. However, Erika Tindill, who heads the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles, noted that very seldom are those requests granted.

One speaker suggested that a process be set up that initially seals these conviction records, unless a former inmate breaks the law a second time.

“If they mess up again, then shame on them,” said Richard A. Caron Sr., who helps people throughout the state apply for pardons.

In previous years, the state helped out with housing security deposits for those leaving jail. Now, some are eligible for halfway housing to help them get back on their feet. Everyone else who serves their time is released with a $75 check, Arnone said.

The department also works to enroll inmates in social welfare programs. Sometimes, however, benefits for services are delayed.

“Very seldom do we just kick people out with nothing,” Arnone said. “It would be nice to say that there isn’t a gap in those leaving with what they need, but there is.”

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