Gov. Dannel P. Malloy left the Paris Air Show in June for an unusual side trip: A flight to Berlin and a rendezvous at a 19th-century German prison with the man he nearly passed over for correction commissioner, Scott Semple.
Semple was on the second day of a five-day guided tour of prisons that looked, sounded and functioned like nothing in the United States. Correction officers are trained as counselors, defendants are treated as juveniles until 21 and inmates are segregated in youth prisons until 25.
The excursion also was a step in an evolving relationship between Malloy, a socially progressive Democrat trying to make prison a place for second chances, and Semple, a Republican who came of age professionally when the primary mission of U.S. prisons was to punish.
“You have a unique partnership,” said Michael P. Lawlor, a former state legislator who is the governor’s adviser on criminal justice and a confidant to both men.
Today, Malloy is pushing to make Connecticut the first state to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 21, and Semple is planning a prison exclusively for inmates no older than 25, the age when many experts consider the human brain mature.
The initiatives have drawn the attention of the White House, which invited Malloy to attend the State of the Union tonight, and a community of reformers across the political spectrum engaged in reevaluating policies that have given the U.S. the world’s highest incarceration rate.
“I would call it the cutting edge of a trend,” said Vincent Schiraldi, a senior research fellow on criminal justice policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “I find it fascinating.”
The partnership nearly didn’t happen.
Semple, 53, had risen through the ranks during the administration of one of Malloy’s least favorite predecessors: Gov. John G. Rowland, a Republican steeped in the get-tough-on-crime school that dominated U.S. politics and penology during the 1980s and 1990s.
When Commissioner James E. Dzurenda, a reformer who had named Semple as his deputy, departed in August 2014 for a job in New York City’s troubled jail system, Semple took over as interim chief. But Semple was not immediately on Malloy’s short list for a permanent successor.
“Sometimes I find people by mistake that are the right people,” Malloy said. “We had some good candidates, people who had led other state’s systems. I liked those people. I had to go against my initial instinct – let’s go with somebody from the outside.”
Over 25 years in the system, Semple had done a bit of everything: Working a cell block in Cheshire, quelling an uprising in riot gear in Enfield, teaching at the department’s training academy, negotiating with legislators in Hartford, overseeing rehabilitation services and running Garner Correctional, a maximum-security prison with a special unit that treats the mentally ill.
Malloy liked that Semple did not act like an interim leader. Among other things, he worked on a plan to convert Cybulski Correctional Institution, an empty prison in Enfield, into a community reintegration center.
“I didn’t really know Scott Semple,” Malloy said. “He had come up through the ranks. He was well-respected, by all reports, within and outside, but hadn’t been in the position to do many of the things that he was thinking about – and lots of things I was thinking about. Then he starts the job and gets off to a pretty good start.
“And then has this tremendous human tragedy.”
Semple’s only child, Matthew Joseph, 15, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer just weeks after Malloy put him in interim charge of a sprawling prison system that, at the time, housed about 16,500 inmates and employed more than 6,000 at an annual cost of more than $700 million.
Malloy, the father of three sons, said he sensed Semple, whom he increasingly saw as the best candidate for commissioner, questioning whether staying in the post was the right thing to do as his son sought a cure at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, a few blocks south of the State Capitol in Hartford.
“I wouldn’t let him resign,” Malloy said. “I said, ‘I think that’s the wrong thing for you. It’s certainly the wrong thing for me. I need you. Why don’t you take as much time as you need to take care of your son in the hopes that he is going to get better?’ It was a tough situation. We knew that.”
Semple said his son, a student at The Gunnery, a prep school in Washington, Conn., urged him to keep working. The son teased the father, telling him that he finally was going to have the only job for which he was truly suited, being boss. Semple told him he still would have a boss. Everyone in government does.
Matthew died last year on New Year’s Day.
Exactly three weeks later, Malloy named Semple as his permanent commissioner. In a message to the department, Semple thanked employees for their support after his son’s death and told them his wife, Christa, and son played a major role in his taking the job. He promised, “Rest assured, you have my full commitment.”
Growth and chaos, then stability and reform
Semple was hired as a correction officer in 1988. The state Department of Correction employed a staff of 3,648 and housed 7,316 prisoners in an overcrowded system that was responsible for half as many inmates just a decade earlier.
“The fact of the matter was it was an agency in chaos,” Semple said.
The inmate population would double again in Semple’s first seven years on the job – to 14,889 – in 1995, the year Rowland took office and immediately named a new commissioner, John Armstrong, who temporarily gave up on most efforts at rehabilitation and focused on stability.
“John Armstrong came in and took a back-to-basics approach and basically shut it all down, said, ‘I can’t do anything until we know our facilities are safe and our staff and inmates are safe.’ He accomplished that,” Semple said.
Semple spent 1997 as a spokesman for Armstrong and the department, then represented the agency at the General Assembly from the end of 1997 though June 2004, the final 6½ years of Rowland’s tenure. Rowland battled the legislature over expansion and privatization issues, including contracting with Virginia prisons to house 1,000 inmates.
Lawlor was then the House co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, which made him a key player on criminal justice issues.
“That period was as turbulent as any, and Scott had a front-row seat,” said Lawlor, a liberal Democrat who clashed with Rowland. “He was in the middle of some pretty inflammatory stuff between me and Rowland at the time.”
Semple said the job changed his career trajectory.
“I don’t think I would be commissioner today if I didn’t have exposure to the legislative piece and external affairs,” Semple said. “It gave me a global understanding of state government.”
In 2005, Semple became deputy warden in charge of programs and treatment at Garner, a maximum-security prison in Newtown designated as the primary facility for inmates with mental health problems.
He succeeded Dzurenda as warden of Garner in 2009, which he assumed would be the capstone to his career. But in late 2013, with the inmate census falling and a national re-evaluation of prison policies under way, Dzurenda brought Semple to the central office to become the deputy commissioner of operations and rehabilitative services.
“All those things have kind of led to this moment in time, where it’s a perfect storm, so to speak,” Semple said.
Semple said Malloy has visited more prisons in the past year than other governors have during their entire tenures.
“It’s not like I can walk in his office and bullshit him. He knows the system; I knew that very early in my interactions with him. He asked me all the right questions,” Semple said.
Malloy, who was a prosecutor in New York City before joining a law firm in Stamford, where he eventually became mayor, successfully pushed for the decriminalization of marijuana possession in his first year, a priority he placed ahead of legalizing medical marijuana.
“It’s interesting that this issue has taken a while to catch on,” he said of criminal-justice reform. “I’ve been working on it my own way, quite frankly, since year one when I was given the choice, ‘Do you want ‘decrim’ or do you want medical?’ And to everyone’s surprise, I said I want ‘decrim.’ ”
One of his sons has had well-publicized problems with depression and drug abuse, which Malloy spoke about at length in an interview in 2009, while he was running for governor. The son eventually was sentenced to probation after attempting to rob a marijuana dealer. He has since graduated from college and begun a career.
Malloy demurred when asked if the experience was part of the impetus for his support for reforms that he says are necessary for what he calls a “Second Chance Society.”
“I’m going to answer it in a different way,” Malloy said, recalling the summer he began as a prosecutor in Brooklyn. “Within 60 days I came to the following conclusion: If what black and Hispanic neighborhoods were being subjected to by the criminal justice system and the rate of crime, if that was being played out in the Upper East Side in New York or Staten Island or Queens, if that was being played out in those neighborhoods, the system would have changed very rapidly. There is a racial disparity, a poverty disparity. It plays itself out in many, many ways. People who can leave a neighborhood will leave it. And the people who can’t leave are left with what society delivers up to them.”
Meeting with Malloy in a German prison
On June 16 last year, seven months after Malloy’s re-election and five months after he nominated Semple as commissioner, the two men met at Tegel prison in Berlin. Both were guests of the Vera Institute of Justice’s second tour of European prisons to expose U.S. officials to correction systems focused on re-entry.
“The Vera Institute has chosen these leaders in hopes that they’ll take the European lessons seriously, and that they have the clout and credibility to enact change once they return home,” wrote Maurice Chammah, a reporter who covered the trip for The Marshall Project.
Jeff Rosen, a district attorney in Santa Clara, Calif., whose father survived a German concentration camp, commented to Chammah about the irony of Germany’s becoming an international standard-setter in humane prisons. “I think that people can change,” he said. “I think countries can change.”
Semple was intrigued by what he would find – and how much of it he might take home to Connecticut. He, too, believes people and institutions can change. The question is how much and how fast.
“It was just as secure, if not more, than what you would see here in the U.S.,” Semple said of the German prisons. “It had a different vibe, a different feel to it. Walking into a cell did not feel like what you would see here – a little bigger, more like a dorm.”
Malloy said the mission was clear.
“They actually want to reform people,” Malloy said. “We concentrate on retribution here, as opposed to reform.”
Malloy was struck by the sight of inmates, all wearing civilian clothes, preparing their own dinner in a small kitchen in their housing unit.
So was Semple, if for a different reason.
“Do I think we can do this in the United States? No, I’m not even ready to go down that road. Quite frankly, one of the things that scared me, they let them cook for themselves,” Semple said. “There were sharp utensils there. I was, ‘Holy crap.’ I got my back to a wall.”
But Semple said he later was told there were no incidents of inmate violence. He eventually was struck by the quiet of the prison, which seemed more like a community college at times as inmates went to classes or prison jobs.
One of the last stops on the tour was Neustrelitz Prison, a facility for prisoners ages 18 to 25. Semple found lessons he could bring home: Staff geared to the challenges of working with impulsive young adults in a facility with a therapeutic approach.
“It represents roughly 20 percent of the overall population right now,” Semple said of the 18-to-25 demographic in prison. “So it’s a huge opportunity that’s going to require us to specialize training for the staff to deal with this population. More likely than not, we’re going to see impulsivity. We’re going to see people who are going to be more assaultive. The rate of incidents will be higher.”
In Germany, the U.S. officials were told they must be prepared to see failure when working with young inmates.
“A lot of their programs are evidence-based. They pay attention to data, but they don’t pay attention to data as it equates to recidivism. It’s not as important to them as it is to us here in the states,” Semple said. “When we had that discussion – there’s going to be failure – they just acknowledged that.”