Layoffs to the Department of Corrections were avoided when labor unions passed a concession agreement last week but two union locals representing correctional officers said Monday that the state’s decision to continue closing prisons has created a dangerous environment for staff.
Speaking to reporters across the street from Hartford Correctional Center, AFSCME Locals 1565 and 387 presidents Luke Leone and Lisamarie Fontano said they filed an injunction two weeks ago in Hartford Superior Court to reverse the closure of Bergin Correctional Institution in Mansfield.
Bergin, which housed around 900 inmates last year, was the most recent prison closure in Connecticut. It followed J.B. Gates Correctional Institution in Niantic, which shut its doors in June. The state also plans to close Enfield Correctional Institution in October.
Closing prisons requires the state to move inmates into other facilities and creates overcrowding, they said. Currently there are 870 inmates statewide whose living arrangements are classified as non-conventional, meaning they aren’t housed in a way the facility was designed for, Fontano said. At one point since prisons began closing that number was up to 920, she said.
“They put those inmates [from Bergin] in non-conventional housing. They’re on the floors, they’re in gymnasiums, it’s a safety concern,” Leone said.
The overcrowding has caused dangerous incidents, he said. Garner Correctional Institute officers had to take 15 inmates to one shower unit and a fight broke out that sent six staff members to the hospital, Leone said.
In another incident, Leone said an inmate with a mental health status of level five, considered dangerous, had his status downgraded to a level three because there weren’t enough level five beds.
“He went to Osborne [Correctional Institution] and tried to kill his cellmate,” he said. “That happened two weeks ago and that was due to overcrowding because they didn’t have the bed space at a level five mental health facility for him so they downgraded him.”
Fontano said there are more incidents of inmates attacking each other.
“When you cause stress to the inmates they’re only going react a certain way. When they’re uncomfortable they behave the way they choose to behave,” she said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice, Mike Lawlor said the DOC’s statistics just don’t support the unions’ claims. Generally the number of inmates at each of the state’s prisons are about where they were at this time last year, he said. The number of inmates at Hartford CC, where the press conference was held, has been near identical at this time going on four years, he said.
Leone and Fontano said that no inmate should be sleeping in non-conventional housing. If there is space in closed down facilities, the beds should be utilized, they said.
But Lawlor said that’s not realistic given the state’s financial crisis. Crime statistics, from arrest to incarceration, have been trending downward at a faster rate than anyone expected and it doesn’t make sense to be opening more prisons, he said.
“This is a very real trend combined with a very real budget crisis,” he said.
Besides, the inmates in non-conventional housing are pre-trial inmates, an unpredictable population, whose numbers seesaw regularly, he said.
“If we get a 60 person uptick every summer, you want us to open a prison for that?” Lawlor said.
He said the stats also don’t support the unions’ assertion that violence in the prisons have increased since the state began closing prisons. Inmate assaults are down 62 percent from 10 years ago and 25 percent since last year, according to the DOC.
Assaults on staff are down 34 percent from last year and 55 percent from 10 years ago. The only classification of incidents which the DOC tracks that has increased since last year was inmate suicides, which hopped from two to five. Ten years ago there were also five suicides.
Fontano said that not all incidents actually result in a report being filed so some aren’t tracked. Some prisoners, knowing they will likely be assigned non-conventional housing, have taken to refusing the housing, preferring instead to be put in segregation where they know they will have a bed, she said.
She and Leone described the situation as a recipe for disaster, which encourages inmates to act out to get a bed.
The state reopened an annex of Gates which now houses inmates under the administration of York Correctional Institute. Leone said that was supposed to be a temporary arrangement to hold 230 inmates. The count is now up to around 658, Fontano said.
“It’s a facility that they basically re-opened to alleviate the overcrowding but they still need to open up another one,” Leone said.
Lawlor said that won’t be necessary. The DOC inmate population is projected to continue to drop. That’s been the case even though fewer people are being accepted into early release programs than in previous years, he said.
When programs recently approved by the legislature like earned risk reduction credits, designed to free some inmates early, go into effect in October it will drive the population even lower, he said.
Leone said the new programs won’t make Connecticut any safer.
“I don’t think there’s that many inmates that can go out on the street. Do you really want that many inmates, 1,000 or more, walking the street? It’s just begging for another Cheshire incident,” he said.
Fontano added, “If the recipe for disaster doesn’t happen within the confines of the walls it will be happening outside the walls.”