Two union locals representing correctional officers filed an injunction in Hartford Superior Court Tuesday to prohibit the state from laying off Department of Correction employees and stop the closure of the now-empty Bergin Correctional Institution.
The Mansfield prison is set to close by the end of the week and currently houses no inmates. It was home to about 600 prisoners at the beginning of this year but all have been transferred to other facilities around the state.
The lawsuit comes from AFSCME locals 1565 and 387, who say that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Department of Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone may have been out of line when they made plans to close state prisons without consulting the unions. The injunction calls for the prison to remain open and the inmates returned.
Any time the state decides to close a prison, it raises concerns about the working conditions and the mental and physical health and safety of correctional officers, therefore the unions that represent them should have been included in the discussion, the lawsuit said.
“Of immediate concern is the increased danger to correctional officers due to the sudden and significant increase in the inmate population of the receiving prisons and/or overcrowding in the receiving prisons,” it said. “[The population increase] increases the danger of bodily harm to correctional officers in a number of ways.”
Those dangers are generated by a lack of secured sleeping areas for inmates, necessitating the placement of large groups of inmates in make-shift sleeping areas that were never meant to be living quarters, the injunction said. This causes unrest among inmates and makes it more difficult for COs to keep an eye on them, it said. That leads to more violence and forces officers to intervene in fights more often, increasing their risk of getting hurt, the lawsuit said.
Overcrowding affects other areas of the prisons as well. When inmates are sleeping on the floor of a gymnasium, there’s less time and space for recreational activity, which also leads to violence, the lawsuit said. There is less bathroom space. That makes inmates angry and frustrated but also raises health concerns because it increases the likelihood that communicable diseases will be transmitted, it said.
Access to facility cafeterias, commissaries and medical treatment would also be reduced, making for angry inmates and more opportunities for officers to be hurt or killed, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit included some DOC statistics that show the number of inmates outnumber the number of beds at 12 of the state’s facilities.
On Wednesday Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice matters, said that with a few exceptions, the number of inmates at each facility is roughly what they were a year ago, before the closure of Bergin and J.B. Gates Correctional Institution in Niantic, which shut its doors in June.
He questioned the overcrowding claims in light of the fact that the statistics say there are around 18,500 beds and only about 17,600 inmates. He noted also that the ratio will tilt further when the state opens about 400 beds in the North Block of Cheshire Correctional Institution.
“[The claims in the injunction] don’t seem to be borne out by the actual prison statistics right now,” he said.
However, the closure of prisons also raise concerns about understaffing, the injunction said. As of last week 209 COs and 23 correctional supervisors had been laid off as part of a cost saving measure to fill a $1.6 billion hole in the state budget left in the absence of a labor concession agreement.
Unions are scheduled to conclude their vote on a clarified concession agreement next week. But the Malloy administration has said that the closures of Bergin and Gates, will remain as a result of a declining inmate population. Enfield Correctional Institution is also scheduled to close in October.
The layoffs put the remaining COs at greater risk because there are fewer officers around to maintain security, the lawsuit said.
“Such conditions increase correctional officers’ vulnerability to attack and increase the danger of unmanageable violence, up to and including riots,” it said.
The lawsuit alleges that Malloy knew the risks when he chose to schedule the facility closures and that the decisions were illegal.
“No constitutional or statutory provision authorizes the governor to recklessly and with deliberate indifference to a known risk, increase the danger of infection or other bodily harm, up to and including death, to the correctional officers serving in the state’s prisons,” it said.
Malloy has said that closures of the prisons are just a function of the Corrections Department shrinking with less inmates. Arrests in the state are down and the need for prison space is dropping, he has said.
“It’s not any other artificial consideration. So it’s not how many facilities we have open, it’s how many beds do we need to have open,” he said last month.
“The decline in the inmate population has been faster than anyone anticipated even a year ago,” he said.
He said it has dropped by about 1,000 since last year and the administration is anticipating another 300 to 400 by the end of the year. The decline will likely be accelerated when newly-approved programs like earned risk reduction credits go into effect. The legislature has also approved an initiative that allows certain drunk driving offenders to serve their sentences under house arrest, he said.
On the other side of the system there are less inmates coming in the door, he said. Crime rates are down in Connecticut and nationally, as are the number of arrests, Lawlor said.
All things considered, there will not be an overcrowding problem, he said.
“All the trends are pointing in this direction,” he said.
Still, some COs have been outspoken in their view that laying off guards is the wrong way for the state to find savings. John Boyle, a retired Bergin correctional officer, said that if the state needed to find money in the department it should have cut more from its management, which he said was bloated.
At a rally last week for a state prosecutor who filed a labor complaint against Malloy and the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition, Boyle pointed across the street, where three men were emerging from the DOC headquarters.
“There’s the central office guys doing a perimeter check. Three guys, no inmates,” he said. “I bet the AC’s working in there too.”