Lori Mack / Connecticut Public Radio

In recent weeks I have discovered that there is a thin line between what’s legal and what’s right. I have become so disturbed by the justice system in this state and the lengths that some people will go to prevent racial and social progress from happening. 

Recently I find myself at a crossroads about future legislative advocacy work. I have questions like “Who can I trust, what can I trust, do I give up on policy work?” Trying to get relief for the most vulnerable in Connecticut is extremely difficult because we are such a highly segregated state and the most vulnerable are not reflected in our legislative body.

Barbara Fair Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror

In April a bipartisan vote passed by the Connecticut legislature’s Judiciary Committee led the way to the passage of the PROTECT Act. It took herculean efforts to do so. The Act called for several changes within the Department of Corrections.

One of the primary changes included establishing an independent oversight advisory committee. It called for a nine-member committee appointed by several designated members of the judiciary. One of the committee’s important role is the hiring of an ombudsperson to provide facility inspection, talk with prisoners, and review policy and procedures within DOC. The committee is expected to provide the names of three individuals for the governor to choose from.

After a long process, a committee was appointed and a public hearing was held on Dec. 12 to formalize the appointments. Somewhere between the vote to pass the legislation and the governor signing it into law the PROTECT Act was compromised — compromised by legislators who chose to go outside the boundaries of the legislation that was voted on.

They did not do so in a vacuum. Either leadership turned a blind eye, signed off on something without reading the full context, or they agreed to the process. In my scenario, someone decided in order to get a bill passed that they wanted, they had to compromise on the PROTECT Act which effectively place the lives of the most vulnerable in our state on the auction block. That’s the most disheartening part of this travesty because it continues the legacy of slavery in another name, with a different face utilizing the same tool as always, legislation.

When advocates found out what had happened we asked how that compromise was made possible. We backtracked the process and found that Public Act (22-114, section 6) which was established to provide mental health assessments for police officers was altered adding “DOC advisory” to its title. It was then used to increase the membership of the DOC advisory board to 11, allowing two legislators to appoint themselves as appointing bodies who then appointed two correctional staff, one a member of the executive board of the correctional union and another a current staff member. Obstructionism at its finest.

At the public hearing it became public record what had happened and although those who sought to establish independent oversight over DOC voiced opposition to the actions, no one with the exception of State Rep. Robyn Porter saw a conflict of interest in placing correctional staff on the committee.

We later asked legal experts were the actions of the legislators legal and were told “as repugnant and underhanded as their actions were, they were legal.” This led me to the conclusion that there is a very thin line between what’s right and what’s legal and I wondered which was more important to the Connecticut legislative body and the people of Connecticut.

The primary reason the decision was made to provide independent oversight over the department is the result of countless complaints from incarcerated people that the internal grievance process was stacked against them because the administration left it to correctional staff to oversee other correctional staff. Almost 100% of the times complaints were ruled “unfounded.”

Without independent oversight many people will not file complaints even against the most egregious behavior by correctional staff because they fear retribution. Many fear calling or writing home about issues because phone calls and letters coming in and going out are monitored. They are certainly not going to bring complaints or concerns to a public process with correctional staff at the table.

Recent news stories of allegations of misconduct rife within DOC are indicative that DOC can’t be relied upon to police itself. One man certainly can’t do it alone. Outside investigations have revealed correctional officers allegedly bringing drugs and other contraband into facilities and selling them to prisoners.

The most recent investigation revealed dozens of officers who stole thousands in federal funding to use to shelter staff during the pandemic. No arrests were made. The union excuses it by stating department had no protocol in place to utilizing the funding. Really?

Consequences for these criminal acts thus far have been up to five-day suspension and promise to return stolen funds. Seriously, how do we justify alleged thieves, liars and drug dealers guarding other alleged thieves, liars and drug dealers? Is there a method to this madness that I’m just not getting?

When lawmakers and law enforcers become lawbreakers they erode public trust and undermine the rule of law. When the public turns a blind eye or a deaf ear to government scandals we effectively invite anarchy. It may be time for the public to consider independent oversight over the judiciary process. We must be able to trust that wayward legislators won’t be able to go behind the scenes and inject back door politics into the process. In doing so they undermine the public will.

It’s time to eradicate the thin line between what’s right and what’s legal. Legal does not always make it right. Ask the descendants of slavery and those who are enslaved behind the walls today because it’s legal according to the exception clause in the Constitution. Ask those who have to routinely endure degrading, dehumanizing and humiliating strip searches behind the walls. Is it right because the courts say it’s right? Time to ask ourselves, where’s our moral compass on some of these legalities.

Barbara Fair lives in West Haven and is a member of Stop Solitary CT.