Republican Bob Stefanowski campaigned outside a prison in Cheshire, displaying photos of makeshift weapons recently seized. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski campaigned outside a high-security prison in Cheshire on Thursday, complaining that the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont has failed to heed complaints of staff and inmates about staffing levels and unreliable air conditioning.

“I don’t know why this afternoon Gov. Lamont couldn’t go to Home Depot and buy 30 standalone [A.C.] units and get them in there. That’s what I do,” Stefanowski said. “If I were governor, I’d hop in my black SUV, or, better yet, I’d hop in my pickup truck.”

Echoing complaints of the union that represents correction officers, Stefanowski said staffing shortages require mandatory overtime in poor conditions and that new minimum standards for time outside cells are endangering staff and contributing to an increase in inmate fights and assaults on officers.

“So I’m here today to advocate for them,” Stefanowski said, standing in a public park across the street from the prison. “I’m here because I don’t think correction officers and inmates should have to wait for me to win this election, which we are going to win, to have bearable working conditions.”

Sean Howard, a correction officer and the president of the AFSCME local that represents Cheshire officers, said in an interview that periodically inadequate air conditioning has been an issue for years in some of the housing units. The union was not represented at the campaign event.

Assaults on correction officers have increased markedly in the past year, but a Department of Correction spokeswoman disputed Stefanowski’s account of conditions at Cheshire and his interpretation of DOC policies on security, staffing and discipline. 

Stefanowski said Lamont’s policies “have handcuffed correction staff and made inmates and the staff both less safe,” and he asserted that the administration has prohibited lockdowns necessary to periodically sweep facilities for contraband, including make-shift weapons.

He displayed a photo provided by Howard’s Local 347 of two shivs seized a month ago at the Level 4 prison, the second-highest security classification in the system. The prison opened in 1913, but the only cell blocks still in use date from 1993.

Stefanowski said Lamont is solely responsible for new standards established by a law passed in April with the support of high-profile Republicans, including Stefanowski’s running mate, Rep. Laura Devlin of Fairfield.

Effective on July 1, the new law codifies standards for lockdowns, the use of isolation cells, and the minimum time inmates get out of their cells.

“Correction staff are no longer allowed to lock down facilities,” Stefanowski said. “Now here’s the problem with that. The lockdown was the best way to find hidden weapons or contraband. So they can’t do it anymore.”

That is not what the new law says, nor is it DOC policy, said Ashley McCarthy, a former correction officer at Cheshire who is the director of communications and training at the Department of Correction.

The law prohibits the use of lockdowns to train staff for more than 24 total hours in a 30-day period, but it imposes no limits on the use of lockdowns deemed necessary to maintain security.

“It is not related to our ability to lock down for a safety issue,” McCarthy said.

Lamont vetoed the first version of the law, which passed in 2021. He said it undermined the discretion of correction staff. He signed the revised version, which passed on votes of 29-6 in the Senate and 98-45 in the House with the support of the Republican leaders of both chambers.

The law is intended to mitigate the mental-health impact of long hours of confinement in either a shared cell or solitary confinement. It requires that inmates get at least four hours a day out of their cells, something that Stefanowski says he applauds.

“The governor has granted inmates more out-of-cell time. Now that’s a good thing. Let the inmates get out of their cells more often,” Stefanowski said. “The problem is he hasn’t increased staffing to accommodate it, which is creating a higher risk situation every single day.”

McCarthy said that is incorrect. Every facility except Cheshire and Osborne Correctional in Somers already met the standard, and staffing was adjusted there to provide adequate supervision during out-of-cell time, she said.

Howard said the limits on isolated confinement have undermined discipline and safety.

The law prohibits solitary confinement for longer than is necessary, or for more than 15 consecutive days or 30 total days within any 60-day period. For protective custody, it can be used for up to five days while a determination is made of its necessity.

Howard said he attributes increased assaults and “code blues,” the system’s jargon for inmate-on-inmate fights, to the new standards.

There were 825 inmate fights in the fiscal year that ended a month ago, slightly less than the fiscal year that ended two years ago, the last before COVID-19 disrupted the system with limits on visits and staff and inmate illnesses.

Undisputed is that assaults on staff have increased, from 100 to 181.

McCarthy said one theory is that as the prison population has shrunk, a greater percentage of inmates are doing time for more violent crimes.

Connecticut’s prison population was nearly 18,000 when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy took office in January 2011. He won passage of reforms that accelerated falling inmate counts, created prison diversion programs and limited prison time for many drug offenses.

The inmate count had dropped to 13,367 when Lamont took office eight years later and briefly dropped below 9,000 little more than a year ago. It since has increased. As of Thursday, it was 10,002 —6,000 sentenced prisoners and 4,002 jailed and awaiting trial. 

Stefanowski offered no broad policy positions on criminal justice, other than saying he would support continuing the direction begun by Malloy — a shift from punishment to rehabilitation.

He would favor increasing funding for the system, if necessary.

McCarthy said COVID has stressed the system. At the worst of the pandemic, about 1,200 of the 5,400 staffers were out sick. Currently, about 200 are out recovering from COVID.

“They do get stretched thin,” she said.

Prisons respond to staff shortages by restricting activities that require higher levels of supervision, then go to overtime shifts that can keep an officer on duty for 16 hours.

Three hundred new officers graduated from the DOC academy since Jan. 21, and another class is in training, she said.

The Lamont campaign said Connecticut has continued to have one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the U.S. during his tenure.

“Gov. Lamont’s responsible budgeting means that we can attack crime at its roots — funding our schools, mental health services, and treatment programs — while giving officers the tools, training and benefits they need to be partners and protectors in the communities they serve,” said Onotse Omoyeni, a campaign spokesman.

Stefanowski complained that he could not get permission to tour Cheshire, despite filling out an application. McCarthy said visits and tours have been curtailed as COVID cases increased.

“Now, I get it, the governor doesn’t want his opponent going into a facility with horrible conditions,” Stefanowski said. “I get it, especially in an election year. But my understanding is that he hasn’t even tried or applied himself to ever go into one of these facilities to see what it’s like.”

Lamont did visit the Cheshire prison at least once — in February 2019, his second month in office.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.