David Desiderato, of Granby, stands with a sign to ask to release prison inmates at risk of coronavirus. “It’s called corrections, but it has the attitude of warehouses,” he said about correctional centers. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Few groups have had it harder during the COVID-19 pandemic than people in prison. Already locked down even before the pandemic, people who are incarcerated have faced dramatic curtailments of activity outside their cells, visits, rehabilitative programming, and educational courses.

Alexander Taubes

Worse, until the vaccine was recently made available, people who are incarcerated have been “sitting ducks” while correctional officers and other staff bring the virus within the correctional facilities, many of them refusing to wear masks or vaccinate, in spaces where incarcerated people live and cannot socially distance.

The difficulties of COVID-19 in prison have caused many people inside to be frustrated, lose hope, or even to give up. Many have died of COVID-19 in prison, both in Connecticut and nationwide. But despite the challenges, some people who are incarcerated have risen to the occasion — working in difficult prison jobs without adequate PPE, helping to make PPE in prison factories, or taking care of other inmates by serving as medical attendants in newly-created “COVID units.”

For most of these individuals who are incarcerated, they will receive little or no reward for their efforts in these difficult circumstances. Connecticut has one of the stingiest systems of credit for good conduct in prison of any states in the nation. Not only are most individuals who are incarcerated required to serve 85% of their sentences, a percentage higher than states like Indiana and Georgia, but incarcerated individuals in Connecticut are entitled to very little credit for “good behavior” in their facilities.

Current policies allow people who are incarcerated to earn only five days a month – at most – off of their sentences with good behavior, including staying out of trouble, working a job, and assisting staff. Many individuals are ineligible even for these credits, for example if they are on a list of crimes that the legislature has deemed ineligible to earn any. This leaves individuals in Connecticut prisons with little incentive to assist staff and behave well, making prisons in Connecticut a less safe place for both the incarcerated and the staff.

Connecticut used to allow people who are incarcerated to earn far more time off of their sentences with good behavior. Under the “Statutory Good Time” system in place until 1994, people who were incarcerated were able to earn 12 days a month off of their sentences with good behavior, and an additional day per week if they held a 7-day-a-week job. In 1993, the legislature passed a bill that was intended to limit this ability of people who are incarcerated to earn time off of their sentences. However the bill was vague and ambiguous.

It stated: “Notwithstanding any other provision to the general statutes, any person convicted of a crime committed on or after October 1, 1994, shall be subject to supervision by personnel of the department of correction or the board of parole until the expiration of the maximum term or terms for which he was sentenced.”

The law did not specifically say that “Statutory Good Time” was abolished. Instead, in June 1994 the Department of Correction commissioner sought advice from the attorney general’s office on how the new law would affect incarcerated individuals. In November, the attorney general issued an opinion stating that the legislature meant to abolish the good time. He then concluded that for people who committed crimes on or after October 1, 1994, no good time credits would be applied.

As far back as 1862 Connecticut law allowed people who are incarcerated to reduce their sentences for good behavior. Under the 1862 law, a prisoner could earn five days per month if they showed that their conduct was “positively good.” After the attorney general’s opinion in 1994, Connecticut was worse than it was even then. More than 25 years later, we are only back to where we were in 1862 – the most an individual can earn while incarcerated is five days per month.

If we have learned anything from COVID-19, it is that people who sacrifice themselves for others – in trying circumstances – deserve some credit for what they have done. Many people who are incarcerated have stepped up and worked in COVID medical units, in crowded dorms as janitors, and have even produced PPE for law-abiding citizens in prison factories. Restoring good time won’t just help people who are incarcerated. This powerful incentive for good behavior will help staff keep order in prisons and ensure the safety of all people in our state.

Attorney General William Tong could start by re-examining the 1994 legal opinion that took away this vital right from our people. But without action from him, it’s time we passed new legislation that restores the ability of incarcerated people to earn a reasonable amount of time per month off of their sentences.

Alexander Taubes is a civil rights attorney in New Haven.