Amid COVID and calls for systemic change, Angel Quiros takes the lead at the DOC
If Angel Quiros, nominated to lead the state’s Department of Correction, gets the job, he’ll have a personal stake in the way incarcerated people are treated in the state’s prisons and jails.
He knows firsthand what it’s like to have immediate family members locked up in the correctional facilities he’ll oversee. Over his three decades working for the Department of Correction, he’s watched loved ones battle addiction, cycling in and out of prison until, tragically, they died. And, he’s seen relatives return home from prison and successfully rebuild their lives, landing jobs and having families.
Quiros grew up less than a mile from the state Capitol, on Park Street, where his father and uncle owned a neighborhood grocery store. He earned a bachelor of science in human services from Springfield College before joining the DOC in 1989. As he’s grown older and reflected on his upbringing and that of his friends who wound up in the justice system, Quiros said many of his incarcerated peers lacked structure in their households. That realization has led his supporting investing in the “front end” of the criminal justice system, like pre-Kindergarten or after-school programs, so people don’t wind up behind bars in the first place.
“That doesn’t mean I’m going be able to resolve all the issues,” Quiros said. “But it does give me a better understanding of the offenders that are incarcerated, that have grown up in poverty, that have grown up around gang members, that have grown up around drug dealers, that may not have the education level, haven’t finished high school.”
The DOC has to move away from a security-first mindset to a wellness mindset.”
Quiros has been the acting commissioner since the previous prison chief, Rollin Cook, resigned in June. If Quiros’ appointment is confirmed by the General Assembly in the next legislative session, he will become the state’s first Latino commissioner of correction. And he’d be taking over at a critical juncture, amid possibly the largest movement for racial justice in American history. As the head of a prison system that is disproportionately filled with Black and Hispanic people — they make up a combined 71% of the state’s incarcerated population — Quiros’ new role would put him at the center of demands for equity in Connecticut.
He could advocate for more changes at the front end of the system, something Quiros said he supports, so people don’t wind up incarcerated, or he can double down on what things were like at the beginning of his 30-year career in the Department of Correction, when the prevailing wisdom about how to decrease crime was to put people in prison.
Advocates are hoping he goes with option number one.
“The DOC has to move away from a security-first mindset to a wellness mindset,” said Melvin Medina, public policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of Connecticut.
Such a shift would require the department to advocate for the needs of incarcerated people that fall outside the confines of barbed wire and locked doors. It would mean pushing to address root causes of crime, and expanding the use of discretionary releases to reduce racial disparities in the prison population.
“The world has changed,” Medina said. “He doesn’t get to walk into this situation with no expectation that he’ll be a reformer.”
Reckoning with the past
Quiros first joined the department in 1989 as a correctional officer and then worked his way up the ranks as lieutenant, captain, major, deputy warden, warden, district administrator, deputy commissioner of operations and rehabilitative services, acting and now commissioner designate.
“They couldn’t open the prisons fast enough,” said Michael P. Lawlor, who served in the House of Representatives from 1987 until 2011 before joining then-Gov. Dannel Malloy’s office as under secretary for criminal justice policy and planning. “Literally the day after it was opened, it was filled with inmates.”
The prison and jail population peaked in 2008, when 19,894 people were incarcerated in state correctional facilities. During COVID-19, the number of people behind bars has plummeted, primarily because of a dramatic decline in the number of people admitted to prison.
In the press conference announcing his nomination, Quiros said the department would consider closing some of its emptying correctional facilities, though he did not specify which ones, or how many.
“I think that as a commissioner, that when the state is in a budget shortfall, that it’s my job to make sure that I do everything I can to give back to the budget, not only as a commissioner, but also as a as a taxpayer,” Quiros said in a recent interview.
One possibility: Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s most secure prison, where Quiros served as warden between 2009 and 2011. The facility has seen a significant drop in its population in recent years.
The Somers prison represents different things to different groups. For advocates, Northern is a relic of the tough-on-crime era, a correctional facility whose design is so isolating that it exacerbates mental illnesses. Last year a federal judge ruled that the inmates incarcerated there who had originally been sentenced to death were “condemned to spend the rest of [their lives] in a cell roughly the size of a parking space,” which regularly smells like feces because of the facilities’ plumbing problems.
For corrections officers, however, Northern offers flexibility. It can house people who attack prison staff or their incarcerated peers, or isolate and contain COVID-19.
Quiros said the prison provided a space for the agency to hold people who were “creating chaos” in correctional facilities and causing prison riots. But, he said, things have changed.
“I will tell you that it’s been 25 years, and that facility has served its purpose,” Quiros said. “With the criminal justice reform that’s going on, the agency will have to take a look at what additional changes we need to make, as far as the programs that are housed at Northern.”
One of advocates’ major concerns about Northern is the facilities’ widespread use of administrative segregation, commonly known as solitary confinement. The United Nations has likened the conditions — which can include shackling people’s hands and feet, sometimes for days at a time — to torture.
The DOC has said the confinement has clearly defined, finite timeframes, and that those held under that status have access to group programming, recreation and interactions with clinicians and counselors.
Quiros said there were 31 people in administrative segregation at Northern as of Sept. 22. When he was the warden about a decade ago, there were around 220.
Northern may be reevaluated, but Quiros said administrative segregation is still an “essential tool” for prison administrators. “So, when violence continues inside the prisons, that you’re able to remove the individual from the general population, get him into some programming, and get them out back into general population.”
A push for racial equity
Reform advocates like Medina, and members of national movements like Black Lives Matter, are demanding more than prison closures – they’re calling for divestment from the criminal legal system, and reallocating those funds into “the very communities that historically have been harmed by these tough on crime policies.”
Quiros said he’d support putting money saved from prison closures toward housing supports for the formerly incarcerated. Such an investment could make it less likely people released from prison wind up back in the system. The three most important things people need after incarceration, Quiros said, are a commitment to change, a place to live, and a job.
“If they don’t have employment, these individuals are going to go back to what they know. Some of them are going to go back into their substance abuse, some of them are going to go back into selling narcotics, selling drugs, and they’re going to end up right back into prison,” he said. “When you have stable housing, and the individual is able to get a job, and they’re committed to want to change, it changes everything. It’s a game-changer.”
Closing Northern and reinvesting money toward housing or employment supports would be a chance for the department to pursue a policy of racial equity. Eighty-seven percent of those held at Northern are Black or Hispanic; more than 70% of those incarcerated in state correctional facilities are racial or ethnic minorities.
If they don’t have employment, these individuals are going to go back to what they know. Some of them are going to go back into their substance abuse, some of them are going to go back into selling narcotics, selling drugs, and they’re going to end up right back into prison.”
Racial disparities among inmates have increased since the pandemic’s onset, which Medina said could reflect inequities among their access to housing, making them ineligible for discretionary release and resulting in them having to wait until the very end of their sentence to get out of prison or jail.
Medina predicted Quiros’ job will be a tough one, because advocates will push him to essentially plan for the elimination of his agency, or at least reorient its ideology to focus on keeping people out of the correctional facilities he oversees.
“Right now, with communities harmed and hurting because of the pandemic, we want to eliminate harm,” Medina said. “If you are an agency whose bottom line is inflicting harm on society and not addressing the root issues, then we’re saying, ‘You should not exist.’”
It remains to be seen whether any money saved from prison closures will be put toward anti-recidivism efforts. Over the summer, Gov. Ned Lamont warned state agencies to be prepared to cut at least 10% of their budgets over the next two years, fearing a cratering, COVID-affected economy. And the state’s surging retirement costs could make legislators less willing to reinvest the money they’d save from prison closures, opting instead to pay down existing debts rather than finance new programs.
But William Dyson, a former state representative who served as chair of the Appropriations Committee from 1994 to 2009 and is now a political science instructor at Central Connecticut State University, said the state’s financial pressures should not outright eliminate the possibility of reinvestment because funding community supports could cut down on crime.
But it’s critical, he said, for lawmakers to understand the intersection between homelessness, job training and access to mental health services when they make decisions about the state’s budget.
Dyson likened the potential looming prison closures to the state shutting down large psychiatric institutions in the 1990s. Officials failed to allocate adequate funds to community supports, shifting the burden of responding to mental health crises to the police.
“As a result, we are picking up the pieces on the mentally ill, which is related to the prisons,” he said.
Preparing for a second wave of COVID-19
One of the most pressing issues Quiros must confront is COVID-19. The DOC reports that there have been 1,558 positive cases of COVID-19 in state prisons and jails as of Sept. 18. Seven inmates have died.
Soon after he was nominated by the governor, Quiros moved the medical isolation unit to MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution from Northern. He acknowledged that inmates hid COVID-19 symptoms to avoid being sent there.
Quiros said the policies the department rolled back — sending sick people to Northern, suspending showers for those in quarantine — were due to the unknowns presented by the virus, like the role of asymptomatic carriers in spreading it. They were not failures in leadership from the previous commissioner, Rollin Cook, he said.
“Those were not mistakes,” Quiros said. “Those were lessons learned.”
The state’s infection rate has increased in recent days, raising concerns about another wave in the fall. Quiros said the DOC is in a better position than it was at the pandemic’s onset thanks to an influx of personal protective equipment and the mass testing in prisons and jails, a condition of the department’s settlement with the ACLU of Connecticut in a lawsuit over its handling of the pandemic.
One of the most imminent issues Quiros will need to deal with is when to resume family visitations, which have been suspended since March. He hopes to initiate non-contact visitation — where inmates will be separated by their loved ones by a glass partition, and communicate through a phone — in the coming weeks, and to connect inmates with their families via video communication sometime in the fall.
“If COVID-19 did anything to us, it was expose the weakness with technology,” Quiros said.
Quiros will not just have to contend with public pressure on how to do his job: he’ll also have to listen to the concerns of DOC employees, which include correctional officers and medical workers.
He said he would be mindful of corrections’ unions concerns once he decides which prisons or jails will be closed.
“I made a commitment to my staff, that once the decision is made, that the first individuals that’s going to know are going to be the unions,” Quiros said. “Then I’m going to get in my car and drive to the facility and make the announcement to them in person.”
Facility closures are “very delicate,” he explained, because they take staff out of their comfort zones. They might have to start work at a different time, or drive a greater distance to begin their shift, making them unable to put their children on the bus to school each morning.
It’s not like the pandemic has caused the problems in our health care system. It’s exposed the cracks. Now is the moment to invest in the kind of services the incarcerated population needs not only when they’re in prison, but for reentry.”
“It’s our hope that Commissioner-designate Quiros, having come up through the ranks, will improve the lines of communication between management and frontline employees,” three union presidents – AFSCME NP-4 Bargaining Unit Presidents Sean Howard (Local 387), Collin Provost (Local 391) and Mike Vargo (Local 1565) – said in a joint statement. “He has begun that process, and we urge him to maintain open communications with us, and to treat us as partners in carrying out the agency’s mission.”
Health care employees, meanwhile are urging Quiros to address staffing shortages. Investing in medical and mental health services will allow staff to focus on preventing, rather than reacting to, emergencies, said Rebecca Simonsen, vice president of Connecticut 1199 SEIU, the union that represents correctional facilities’ medical workers.
“We can’t go back down the road of trying to squeeze medical and mental health services and think that we are actually upholding a second-chance society,” said Simonsen.
“It’s not like the pandemic has caused the problems in our health care system. It’s exposed the cracks,” Simonsen said. “Now is the moment to invest in the kind of services the incarcerated population needs not only when they’re in prison, but for reentry.”
Quiros reminded himself of the stakes of the job shortly before Lamont appointed him. Instead of taking the highway from his office in Wethersfield to meet with the governor at the Capitol for his interview, he took an alternate route: memory lane. He passed his alma mater, Bulkeley High School, then drove around his old neighborhood.
“A large portion of the incarcerated population originate from big cities: Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, and now, I have been given the amazing opportunity to have a positive impact on these communities and the offenders returning back into our society,” Quiros said in the news conference announcing his appointment. “No one deserves to be defined by their biggest mistake or their worst decision. Incarceration is the penalty. Our job is to prepare people for a fresh start.”
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