Somers — Scott Semple sat in the prison chow hall and squeezed tartar sauce out of a packet to dress up a dry, rectangular piece of breaded fish. Inmates working the kitchen peered through the narrow slot from which every diner’s tray wordlessly emerged, each with a carton of milk, a fresh-baked roll and portions of fish, mac and cheese, corn and diced carrots, and apple sauce.
“They’re watching to see if I eat this,” Semple said, trying not to laugh.
The correction commissioner picked up his plastic spork and dug into his first prison meal since his days as a warden. Up and down the row of fixed tables and stools, an economist, a banker, a teacher, a fire chief, a former city councilman, a church worker and others did the same, their introduction to how 1,400 men do time at Osborn Correctional Institution, a prison that opened 53 years ago in the same month as John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The three-hour tour Friday night was arranged by the Vera Institute of Justice, a national prison reform group that has found a willing partner in Semple, one of the correction officials trying to broaden the role of rehabilitation in the U.S., the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world. One of Vera’s more modest goals in its Reimagining Prison campaign is demystifying life behind bars.
“This part of Reimagining Prison is about transparency,” said Sarah Lustbader, a former public defender in the Bronx, now with Vera. “What we want to get out of it is to normalize the idea that prisons are part of the community, and you as a community member should be able to go into your local facility and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ For a long time, and this was by design, for 200 years about, prisons have been walled off from society.”
Vera’s pitch is enlightened self-interest, a pragmatic approach in a time when getting tough on crime still plays at the polls and the president-elect portrays America as unsafe, despite a falling crime rate. It wants America to know 95 percent of men and women behind bars eventually go free — and to think about what that means for society.
“If you encounter someone who was incarcerated, do you want to encounter somebody who was made to suffer?” Lustbader asked. “Or do you want to encounter somebody who came out better and better equipped with more opportunity than when they went in?”
Osborn is in a remote corner of Somers, a town of about 11,000 chosen by Money Magazine as one of its Best Places to Live based on its “economic opportunity, good schools, safe streets, things to do and a real sense of community.” The low-rise prison, ringed by fences topped with razor wire, sits on what once was 550 acres of rolling farmland near the border with Enfield and Longmeadow, Mass.
Its neighbors are other prisons: Northern C.I., a maximum-security facility ready for anyone who screws up at Osborn, and Carl Robinson C.I., Enfield C.I. and Willard-Cybulski C.I. In the rural darkness Friday night, an unnatural glow emanated from the security lights of each compound, reinforcing them as worlds apart.
Cybulski is home to one of Semple’s reforms: a community reintegration center that readies inmates for release with counseling and classes to prepare them for finding housing and getting and keeping a job. Inmates nearing release regularly shed their prison khakis for civilian clothes and are escorted to an advanced manufacturing class at Asnuntuck Community College. A local politician has objected. Semple says the course has been a pipeline to decent jobs with manufacturers. The classes continue.
Semple is supported by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat who has pushed with mixed results what he calls his “Second Chance Society” agenda. He convinced the legislature last year to reclassify most drug possession crimes as misdemeanors, which contributed to shrinking Connecticut’s prison population by 1,130 inmates. But he failed to win the authorization necessary to handle many crimes in juvenile court for defendants up to age 21, saving them from adult records that can limit opportunities in perpetuity.
Over the weekend, Connecticut’s prison population hit a 20-year low of 14,893, a 25 percent reduction since early 2008, when it peaked at 19,894. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. still houses 25 percent of its prisoners, far more than any other nation.
The commissioner was one of Vera’s guests on a five-day tour of prisons in Germany last year. One of the stops was Neustrelitz Prison, a facility for prisoners aged 18 to 25. Semple saw a model he wanted to replicate: Staff geared to the challenges of working with impulsive young adults in a facility with a therapeutic approach and a belief the human brain does not mature until 25.
But more than a year later, the state’s budget problems have forced Semple to downsize his ambitions. The current plan is to begin with a 100-bed unit and concentrate on inmates from age 22 to 25, since the Manson Youth Institution already segregates prisoners through age 21.
On the tour Friday, the visitors saw a work in progress.
To enter Obsborn, the visitors passed through a metal detector at the gatehouse, where a correction officer logged in each person, matching them to a photo ID. The process would be reversed on the way out, a check against escapes. On the other side of the entrance gate, a holiday wreath hung by the door to the prison.
Semple and Warden Edward Maldonado greeted the group in the visitors room, a brightly lit space with a beige terrazzo floor and off-white cinderblock walls and columns papered with signs. You may hold hands. But don’t chew gum. Or pass any items. Or visit on a state holiday.
Other signs plead in English and Spanish to alert staff to signs of depression. “Suicide is preventable…if you hear something…or see something…say something. You may save a life.…It’s not snitching to help someone who is hurting.”
The Connecticut prison system may be run by a reformer who places rehabilitation over retribution, but opportunities for employment in the kitchen and Prison Industries program at Osborn are limited for the 1,400 inmates.
“I only have about 600 jobs available, so some inmates might never work,” Maldonado said.
A clothing factory within Osborn’s walls produces T-shirts, boxers and khaki pants for the inmates. On Friday night, inmates punched in and took their places at sewing machines within a chain-link enclosure, a scene that might have been as it was a half-century ago. The work provides some modest wages and contributes to a work ethic, but no textile jobs await inmates once they leave.
Andrea Comer, who works at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said she knows Semple has made progress, but she was unsettled by the sight of inmates laboring at jobs that have not existed for decades in Connecticut outside Osborn’s walls.
“Are we equipping foks while they are in there doing work that is valuable?” Comer said. “It would be great if we could get them working on suff that gives them a skill they can use when they come home.”
In the prison library, the tour group was introduced to Tino Negron, who was locked up at 16, accused and later convicted of shooting a man to death in Bridgeport. That was 29 years ago.
Negron and other inmates pulling long sentences run Skills of Socialization, a 12-week program that offers a mix of peer counseling and encounter sessions with younger inmates, many with similar stories of trauma and abandonment, involvement with drugs and gangs.
The visitors sat in silence and observed an abbreviated session. One young inmate talked about never knowing his father and disappointing a mother whom he says labored to keep him from trouble on the street.
“The sessions are real,” said Alex Rosado, the prison chaplain.
On the way out, the visitors peppered the prison officials with questions about punitive segregation, issues of sexuality in prison, medical facilities and hospice care. One woman asked Maldonado what he would do if money were no object.
“Technology. Technology would be great,” he said, mentioning that other states offer “digital visiting.”
Miles Hall of Advocacy Unlimited, which helps people recovering from mental health and addiction issues, asked how the department was coping with budget cuts.
Maldonado said he’s lost a half dozen positions at Osborn, part of the 40 layoffs department wide.
“We make it work,” he said. “Honestly, we don’t have a choice. We make it work.”
John Santa, a former energy company chief executive who has visited every Connecticut prison with the Order of Malta, whose Connecticut chapter has adopted the cause of prison reform and prisoner re-entry, had a broader question.
“How do we measure corrections?” Santa asked. “Correction is our mission. What are the benchmarks? What are the bellwhethers?”
Maldonado laughed and called that a global question. He invited Monica Rinaldi, the deputy commissioner to answer. She told Santa that the recidivism rate is the gold standard. It’s been falling in Connecticut, along with the crime rate and prison population.
“That’s the number everybody looks at,” she said. “Nationally, that’s what everybody looks at to see the impact.”
But she said Semple is trying to measure every change they make in the system.
“He’s really into performance measures,” Rinaldi said. “He makes us measure everything we do. We’re constantly measuring things in this agency. That’s kind of a new thing for us.”