Standing directly in front of a poster depicting an empty hallway of prison cells, Virgilio Rosario peered into the crowd through his tinted eyeglasses Wednesday and proclaimed that he wanted to “change the paradigm” of what it means to be formerly incarcerated.
“When a person gets out of prison, they don’t have a family, they’ve been totally disconnected — not just from family — coming home to nothing,” he said, facing a line of cameras and microphones during a press conference at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. “Then you got people in society that are gonna judge them based on what they did before they went to prison. They never took the time to try and invest a little bit to get to know this person.”
Rosario, who is the brother of Rep. Christopher Rosario, D-Bridgeport, was among several formerly incarcerated people, advocates and legislators who came together Wednesday to urge Gov. Ned Lamont to support the reallocation of funds saved from the closure of Willard Correctional Institution to resources for people being released from the state’s prisons.
Closing Willard will save the state approximately $6.5 million annually, and supporters said they’re hopeful that at least a portion of those funds will go toward helping those leaving prison — who are overwhelmingly people of color trying to get reacclimated to society, specifically in areas such as mental health, employment, education and housing. They did not specify how much of the funding was needed.
According to a “State of Reentry” report discussed at the press conference Wednesday, in June 2022, Black and Hispanic residents made up a combined 63% of incarcerated people whose sentences would end in six months.
Half of the people whose sentences would end had substance use scores of “serious,” the highest score possible. Sixty two percent of them hadn’t attained a high school diploma, while most of them had less than five years of employment history or vocational training.
Legislators said the data make clear exactly where the state needs to direct its resources and can best help the people transitioning back into their lives outside of prison — but to make that happen, Rep. Rosario said, the governor also has to agree.
“Those funds need to go where they need to go. Just like in student education, the money follows the child, I think that the money needs to follow that reentry citizen,” said Rep. Rosario, who also serves on the legislative committee that handles matters pertaining to the state budget.
David Bednarz, press secretary for Lamont’s office, told the CT Mirror that the governor backs the reallocation of the prison closure funds to resources that will help all Connecticut residents.
“Gov. Lamont supports increasing investments for employment services, housing and education, including for those who are formerly incarcerated,” Bednarz said, “and that’s why his proposed budget increases state funding in each of these areas.”
Lamont’s budget proposal, released last week, highlighted the need to invest in incarcerated people and their needs. But in a press conference held after the governor’s proposal, his administration didn’t commit to any specific plan that would prioritize reentry, aside from stating that the $6.5 million saved from closing Willard can be reinvested into other areas.
The push for more funding for reentry efforts comes less than a month after the state announced the closure of Willard. The Enfield prison joined Radgowski Correctional Center and Northern Correctional Institution on the list of state correctional facilities that have shuttered operations since 2021 due to a shrinking prison population.
The three closures combined will save the state more than $26 million annually.
Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros, who was nominated for a second term Tuesday and attended the press conference Wednesday, told the CT Mirror that he supports efforts to assist the reentry community but acknowledged that he has no say in where the funds end up.
Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, who also attended and spoke at the event, said it was important for people reentering their communities after prison to have access to resources, because “unless you create a new environment, we’re creating a return to that same behavior.”
“It’s about increased productivity, increased jobs, but also an increased contribution to our society. There is no tangible dollar and cents to it,” Hwang said. “For me as a legislator, this is not a party issue. … We have a responsibility to create an environment and ecosystem for every individual to succeed.”
Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, called it an “obligation” to support people reentering their communities.
“We need to center humanity when we talk about the Department of Correction, people who are incarcerated, good people who have made some poor choices and some not so good people, let’s be honest,” Porter said. “What I will say is: Let’s rehabilitate the person in the way we want them to go so that they don’t recidivate.”
Virgilio Rosario said he now owns a business, employs people and is changing his community along the way. Before leaving the podium, he proudly shouted out the people in attendance who helped him get to this point — and restated the need to help other Connecticut residents succeed after they spend time behind bars.
“This money from all these prisons, and then excess money that’s sitting around that’s already here, should be allocated to the true direct services, needs of people,” he said. “People shouldn’t have to come home to fill out an application. They should come home trained and ready to work right out of prison.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the party affiliation of Sen. Tony Hwang. He’s a Republican from Fairfield, not a Democrat.