This year the PROTECT Act, otherwise known as Senate Bill 1059, offers Connecticut an opportunity to address conditions in Connecticut state prisons and jails that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture condemns as “a State-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain… which may well amount to torture.” If passed, the PROTECT Act would end solitary confinement by guaranteeing minimum time out of cell, banning abusive restraints, ensuring access to pro-social communication, increasing correctional accountability, and supporting the mental health of correctional officers.
Recently, the PROTECT Act was passed by the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support, signaling that ending domestic torture is a humanitarian concern, not a partisan issue. The bill mandates long overdue changes in the Department of Correction (DOC), which Stop Solitary CT projects will, in the long run, actually save the state approximately $17 million per year. Protecting the lives of people who live and work in prisons must be a legislative priority — the fact that the PROTECT Act would also end up saving the state money is an added bonus.
At the end of April, however, the Connecticut State Office of Fiscal Analysis (OFA) released a report indicating that the bill could cost the state anywhere from $18.3 – $21.4 million in FY 22 to $18.5 – $21.7 in FY23. OFA’s projection is a drastic overestimate which assumes that in order to implement substantial correctional reform, the DOC needs more funding. In no way should a misleading fiscal note of this magnitude be allowed to quietly kill such important and financially responsible legislation.
Breaking down the numbers illustrates that new funding for the DOC is entirely unnecessary. In order to end solitary confinement, the DOC erroneously projects a need to hire 44 to 88 additional correctional officers, costing up to $6.3 million. However, this estimate ignores that Northern Correctional will close in July, freeing up approximately 123 correctional officers; that two more prisons are slated for closure in the coming months; that the DOC currently has the highest staffing ratios in its almost 53 year history; that the Department of Correction presently has a officer-to-prisoner ratio much higher than the national norm; and that the correctional population is continuing to decline. In short, even if ending solitary confinement did increase demands on staffing— a claim which is largely empirically denied— given current capacity in the DOC, there is no need to hire additional staff.
The Protect Act would be budget positive to the tune of $15.1 million. After considering appropriate context and recognizing that the bill’s legislative champions plan to introduce an amendment that would eliminate a provision about phone calls, Stop Solitary CT projected that the PROTECT Act would cost, at most, $1.9 million. This sum would be more than offset by the $17 million in projected savings that come from ending prolonged isolation. The PROTECT Act’s initially inflated fiscal note highlights an insidious dynamic in the legislative process: tagging transformative legislation with an unduly high fiscal note simply because an agency is worried about implementation. As the electorate increasingly recognizes the harms of a bloated correctional bureaucracy, policy makers should be wary of claims that humane conditions require massive new expenditures. Ending torture in the Connecticut DOC requires legislative change and a cultural shift, not massive new expenditures.
Joseph Gaylin is a member of Stop Solitary CT’s Steering Committee