By Sean Howard, Collin Provost and Michael Vargo
The movement to stop solitary confinement in Connecticut’s prisons proves the old saying that good intentions can lead to bad consequences.
That’s why we are concerned about proposed legislation known as The Protect Act (SB 459) that would ease restrictions on inmates and further diminish the tools corrections officers can use to maintain safety in state prisons.
As correctional officers, our No. 1 priority is to maintain safety and security in our facilities, but let’s be real — bad things happen quickly in corrections facilities. Employees need to be able to quickly handcuff offenders, as an officer did recently when one inmate began stabbing another wheelchair-bound inmate. The officer dove onto the assailant and handcuffed him, saving the life of the inmate under attack.
Our members are highly skilled at de-escalation, but a system for rewarding good behavior and discouraging bad behavior is critical to maintaining safety and security for everyone. Absent a commitment to hiring significantly more staff, any significant increases in recreation time will prove harmful.
The greatest dangers occur during recreational time. This is when corrections staff must make sure that inmates of warring gangs, rivals within individual gangs and predatory inmates do not attack each other or unaffiliated inmates. It is not easy to keep tabs on who is who and the ever-shifting inmate alliances and grievances in a prison.
Legislators and the public should remember that reducing the number of inmates and closing prisons in the past did not make our facilities any safer. According to DOC disciplinary reports, the inmate population decreased to 9,227 from 18,021 between 2010-11 and 2020-21. Still, the ratio of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults as a percentage of the daily population has increased.
What’s more, the mix of the offender population that we are supervising has changed dramatically. In 2008, approximately 47 percent of offenders were classified as violent due to convictions for offenses such as murder, sexual assault, assault or robbery. In 2021, that percentage rose to 64 percent. Clearly, our prisons are more volatile places.
Just as we have a duty to maintain order in our state prisons — where we patrol unarmed — we also have a duty to tell the public what is really going on. We cannot stay silent when distortions and mistruths continue to be spread with impunity.
In a recent CT Mirror editorial, “Stop Solitary” proponents claimed that inmates at Cheshire Correctional Institution are locked in their cells for up to 72 hours at a time and not allowed to shower. That’s wrong. Connecticut does not have “solitary confinement” as defined by the advocates. Inmates placed in administrative segregation are visited several times a day by staff. They are given two hours a day of recreation. They have access to phone, television, and showers.
We would argue that Connecticut does not have “solitary confinement” as defined by advocates. Inmates placed in administrative segregation are visited several times a day by staff. They are given two hours a day of recreation. They have access to phone, television and showers.
The facilities where our members work are not versions of Shawshank State Prison.
SB 459 comes at a time when the Department of Correction is an agency in crisis. The DOC is dangerously understaffed, leading to unsafe working conditions. Right now, we are short more than 600 front-line staff, including officers, captains and lieutenants, nurses and many more. Another 400 or more are expected to retire this spring as part of the “silver tsunami.”
COVID-19 has made everything worse. The pandemic hit more than 1,300 of our members and triggered a large wave of resignations, adding to the overwork and stress felt by those who are still working. Staff are now routinely mandated to work double and even triple shifts to ensure coverage.
This is a recipe for disaster.
The Protect Act was raised for public hearing on March 25. We hope legislators will take the time to talk with us and tour our facilities. It’s critical to separate fact from fiction. Otherwise, good intentions will produce disastrous results.
In the meantime, we will continue doing our duty. That means safeguarding the public, inmates and our fellow staff members for the good of our state and our communities.
Sean Howard, Collin Provost and Michael Vargo are Correction Officers and, respectively, the presidents of AFSCME Local 387, Local 391 and Local 1565, representing front-line Connecticut DOC employees.