As I sat in the Judiciary committee meeting waiting to hear SB1196, an act concerning the degrading and dehumanizing strip searches be voted out of committee.
As I listened to hear what excuses legislators were going to use to justify why they changed the language in the original legislation from requiring probable cause to subject children, women and men through this deeply painful and humiliating practice tears became too strong to control.
I just sat there looking into the faces of those who decided to not do anything and allow countless incarcerated people to continue to suffer this plight even after they were courageous enough to publicly bear the pain and anger they experience every time they are forced to comply to a policy. It is a policy that I would like to believe most of us consider repugnant, abusive and the most degrading sexual exploitation within Connecticut jails, prisons, and yes, youth facilities. Exploitations that borders on sadistic and perverted.
I felt let down by legislators whom I wanted to believe actually felt human compassion listening to the voices of many who described this major violation of one’s privacy and human dignity. I am one of those people who reject that some people have ice water in their veins, a stone where a heart should be and lacked integrity and human compassion.
Although I had read the words 30 minutes before the hearing began, they seemed even colder coming from the lips of many whom I had grown to respect and believe in their ability to care about the human suffering of others. Once again I had to swallow a pill that is so difficult for me to swallow. I looked at the one legislator whom I knew had a heart of gold and was equally as sickened by this decision to do nothing.
I listened to legislators try to make me feel like they were genuinely doing something to bring relief to those suffering in despair inside a system that claimed to rehabilitate those coming through the doors. I heard the commissioner’s worn out narrative that this is about safety and security. I heard the unsubstantiated horror stories from correctional officers who claim drugs and weapons are found inside facilities all the time. I also listened to one legislator who would likely die before seeing an incarcerated person receive relief from the pain and anguish they experience daily.
I heard from the one legislator who challenged the prevailing narrative and because there was nothing else to be done she made sure the record reflected what many sitting there did not want to touch. She talked about the undisputable, documented reports of correctional officers being arrested throughout the years for bringing drugs, phones and other contraband into the facilities for their own gain, be it sexual favors or financial gain.
The latest officer, and there have been many reported in the media, was Noe Agramonte of Meriden who was arrested in February, 2022 for allegedly supplying drugs to individuals inside Cheshire CI, using a cash-ap account to collect the money. I was able to go as far back as 2012 when Arcolin Fountain of Hamden was sentenced to probation and community service for providing drugs inside Cheshire CI and then we have in 2019 Jennie Reese of Oxford arrested for providing a phone to an incarcerated male held in Garner CI.
In 2014 officer John Biehn was arrested for providing drugs to people inside Bridgeport CI. These are just a sample of those caught and charged. According to people from inside officers provide drugs, phones and other contraband all the time and have done so for decades, yet they are not subjected to strip searches.
And then there is Paul Rosenberg from Litchfield who was arrested in 2016 for several counts of sexual assault in which the incarcerated male victim reported this officer made a point of continually strip searching him, supplying him with contraband including deodorant, boxers, and chewing gum.
And then there are the arrests of three officers , Kareem Dawson, Jeff Bromley and Matt Gillette for sexual assaults that took place in York in 2013. Bromley reportedly brought in small gifts, food, having photos of the victim and having sex with her in a prison basement and laundry room.
And then we have a Corrections Lieutenant, Felix Ramirez arrested for recording a female teen as she was undressing in a store dressing room and let’s not even get into the many officers who abused COVID funding and others collecting worker’s comp pretending they were injured on the job while working elsewhere.
All mentioned are public record so you can deny the existence of major corruption within DOC yet the truth won’t become a lie.
So as I sat there listening to legislators state they understood our fight yet had to weigh in what correctional staff had to say it took everything in me to remain quiet and respectful of the process that was choking me because there was not a whisper of countless dirty secrets within CT Department of Corrections, the very department they felt was deserving of integrity and honor as opposed to the voices of children, women and men being abused without consequence.
I could allow the pain, rage and deep disappointment to immobilize me, but it won’t help those whose hearts are breaking hearing that they will be subjected to these abuses at least another year. Their painful stories will keep me on course as I work on alternative strategies for bringing them relief.
One thing I have learned well doing policy work in Connecticut is that the best way to resist change and maintain systems of oppression is by using legislators to ask for a report or study instead of doing the real work. What was most amazing to me was watching people I respected justify in their own mind why they were letting the people down.
Barbara Fair lives in West Haven and is a member of Stop Solitary CT.