Craig Fishbein, John Kissel, Steven Stafstrom and Gary Winfield sit in a room in Hartford's Legislative Office Building, conversing after a meeting.
(Left to right) Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford; Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield; Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport; and Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, converse after a Judiciary Committee meeting held on Jan. 25, 2023, in Hartford. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

In May of this year, the PROTECT Act was finally passed into law, with a bi-partisan vote in both houses of the Connecticut legislature. After years of grass-roots organizing, meeting with legislators and all stake-holders, and months of negotiating with the Department of Corrections, compromises were made and we had a law all parties could live with as a beginning to ending solitary confinement or extreme isolation by whatever name it is called.

This law provides independent oversight for the Department of Corrections (DOC) with the creation of an ombudsperson working with an Advisory Council comprised of individuals with a variety of backgrounds, as specified in the law. Connecticut is one of the few states that does not have independent oversight of the department responsible for corrections.

As Barbara Fair wrote in a recent commentary, we are still waiting for the law to be implemented. In addition to independent oversight, the law required four hours out-of-cell time for all incarcerated people in Connecticut. This has yet to happen. However, the latest barrier to implementation of the PROTECT Act has just recently happened while attempting to seat the Advisory Council.

As called for in the law, specific legislators were asked to appoint members to this independent Advisory Council, with the governor having three of appointments. The law specifies that the Advisory Committee shall be comprised of nine members and designates which legislator nominates each person with specific expertise or life experience such as a person directly impacted, medical expertise, a demonstrated interest in advancing the rights and welfare of incarcerated persons, expertise in the provision of mental health care to incarcerated persons or formerly incarcerated persons, legal expertise, and experience in the Department of Correction.

Members of Stop Solitary CT gathered a slate of candidates for the Advisory Council who, among other things, will send a list of nominees for the ombuds position to the governor. We made certain that each person represented the criteria laid out in the law before sending recommendations to legislators. It was a rigorous process. The legislators selected whom they thought were the best candidates. The Department of Correction has total control and people who are incarcerated have no voice. The oversight must be independent of DOC as specified in the PROTECT ACT.

More recently, two legislators inserted an amendment just days before the governor signed the bill into law, allowing them to nominate two members for the Advisory Council who are currently working for the Department of Correction, which clearly goes against the intent of this law as put forth in the PROTECT Act for independent oversight.

Their questionable actions did not allow for any public input or scrutiny. The oversight cannot be independent with members of DOC on the Advisory Council. During negotiations with the Commissioner of Correction, he readily admitted that DOC involvement would not allow for independent oversight.

It has become very clear the intent of this maneuver was to ensure that nothing at DOC changes in any way that would make conditions for incarcerated people more humane. If one is doing nothing wrong, not violating the human rights of incarcerated people, why resist and be afraid of independent oversight?

If this process of independent oversight is to work, trust is crucial, trust by incarcerated people that there will be no retaliation for speaking up. With two former corrections officers who clearly have deep ties and regular contact with other corrections officers currently employed in the prisons of DOC, this trust is immediately compromised. Fear of retribution from those who are powerless (incarcerated people) and those who hold all of the power and control (correction officers), stacks the deck against this process of independent oversight ever working, and is in direct opposition to the intent of the PROTECT Act passed into law last year.

Clearly the Department cannot police itself as is evident from countless lawsuits against DOC regarding the abuse of incarcerated people, and medical neglect. In 2021, an audit of the Department revealed the abuse of overtime by CO’s, inappropriate union leave payments, among other violations.  Yet, legislators are making sure that things remain status quo by placing two loyal corrections officers (loyal to their own “brotherhood”) on the independent advisory council.

While advocates working in directly with the DOC administration and with legislators, to negotiate a bill that passed, bi-partisan, in both houses, this last minute, underhanded tactic by two legislators was devious and quite contrary to the process of democracy. They showed complete contempt for advocacy and the will of the majority of the people. During the recent “public” hearing, only select people were informed of the hearing, only select members of the Advisory Board were told there would be a hearing and others were not asked to attend. Instead, the hearing was weighted in favor of the corrections officers being seated, with other current CO’s testifying for their “brothers.”

Independent oversight is impossible with an advisory council that is comprised of anyone currently employed by DOC. It is a clear conflict of interest.   The two legislators who wrote this amendment (and the legality of it may still be in question) and nominated these two men were intent on blocking the democratic process since these last two nominations were made through back-door actions without public scrutiny.

It becomes clear to those of us who work to create humanitarian change to a system based on enslavement that our voices and the voices of incarcerated people and their families will not be heard, in which case,democracy has failed.

As these two men are seated on the Advisory Council, it is obvious that the intent is to keep everything at DOC as is, with no change to benefit the lives, conditions, and recognition of the importance of the humanity of incarcerated people, who suffer from a system that is out of control and lack the benefit of a democratic process.

Ann Massaro is on the Stop Solitary CT steering committee.