Activists protest plan to move female inmates from Danbury prison

New Haven – Standing before the thick columns of the federal courthouse on New Haven Green, community and religious activists held a protest Tuesday, saying they wanted to speak for the silent women behind bars in Danbury.

Taking turns at a bullhorn, the activists warned that plans to transfer hundreds of female inmates from Danbury federal prison to facilities in Alabama and other states far from their homes would have a devastating effect on inmates and their families.

“The further away it is, the harder it is for them to survive,” said Joan Chiano, a member of the antiracism task force of the Unitarian Universalist Society of New Haven.

They said the transfers would disrupt and depress the women, and hurt their chances of success when they eventually re-enter society.

Valerie Dixon, a volunteer at the York Correctional Institution, a state-run women’s prison in Niantic, told the crowd that family ties are one of the most important indicators in preventing inmates from returning to prison. She said children motivate their mothers to take programs and do the work to rehabilitate themselves in prison.

The protest attracted a small crowd of about 25, nearly half of whom were either speakers or members of the media. It was quickly organized after the federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed last week that it would resume its plans to convert the Federal Correctional Institution for women in Danbury to a men’s prison.

The plan calls for moving the 1,120 women to facilities in Alabama, Philadelphia, West Virginia, Minnesota, Florida and California. About 59 percent of the women serving time in Danbury are mothers to children under age 21.

The bureau, which said it wants to make the move to alleviate overcrowding in men’s prisons, also said that it is carefully evaluating each transfer and, in some cases, will actually be moving women closer to their transfer homes. In addition, moving men into Danbury would bring many of them closer to their families in the Northeast, the bureau has said.

The ongoing government shutdown, however, has temporarily suspended any moves at Danbury right now. Bureau spokesman Chris Burke could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The entire plan was halted temporarily this summer after a group of U.S. senators, including Connecticut’s Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, urged the bureau to suspend the plan and look at alternatives so women wouldn’t be so far from home.

Murphy, who did not attend the press conference in New Haven, said Tuesday that he and Blumenthal have been assured that nothing will happen until they have a chance to meet with the bureau.

“We will attempt to make the case one last time that this is wrong for both the bureau and women,” Murphy said. “But I think they have made up their mind. They are being very hard-headed about this. But I remain optimistic we will be able to prevail upon them and change their mind, but the clock is ticking.”

Blumenthal, who was not at the protests either, said in a press release that the bureau’s current policy is misguided and damaging.

“This shortsighted move will cause severe hardship, harm and pain for the young children of these women, and will hinder and restrict the family bonds and relationships we know are critical to rehabilitation,” Blumenthal said.

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