Courtesy of the DOC

Correction Department Commissioner Rollin Cook announced Friday that he’s resigning and headed back to Utah to be with his family.

Cook was one of the first commissioner’s Gov. Ned Lamont appointed when he took office in January 2019.

“Commissioner Cook has been a reliable, steady hand at our Department of Correction since I came into office, and I am grateful for his service and leadership,” Lamont said in a press release announcing Cook’s departure. “He helped guide our prison system through a challenging and unprecedented time during this pandemic, and I can’t thank him enough for all of the work and thoughtfulness he has brought to the position.”

“Commissioner Cook has been a reliable, steady hand at our Department of Correction since I came into office, and I am grateful for his service and leadership,” Lamont said in a press release announcing Cook’s departure. “He helped guide our prison system through a challenging and unprecedented time during this pandemic, and I can’t thank him enough for all of the work and thoughtfulness he has brought to the position.”

Cook had more than 30 years of correctional experience when he decided to take the job in Connecticut.

“This decision was driven purely out of the love I have for my family and the fact is I miss them dearly,” Cook said. “I view today as bittersweet having to leave the people that essentially became my family, while knowing in my heart that returning home to my wife and children is the right choice. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I was given to work side-by-side with the amazing men and women of the Connecticut Department of Correction.”

In light of the resignation, members of the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union Smart Justice campaign are asking Lamont to stay true to his promise to include the group in any selection process for a new DOC commissioner.

“Given everything that has happened during the pandemic, we have no confidence that anyone internally is reform-minded and decarceration oriented,” said Mel Medina, CT ACLU Public Policy and Advocacy Director.

The CT ACLU wants a national search for a “reform-minded commissioner committed to the decarceration of our prisons and jails,” Medina said. The new commissioner would need the support of Lamont’s administration, Medina said, and should be able to provide for the health and safety of all inmates.

“It’s not enough to have a nationwide search,” Medina said. “It has to be a community-wide search where inmates, who are part of the community, and people living in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and other cities are included. Families of those who are incarcerated should also have a voice.”

Cook touted his hiring of health care staff and a reduction in the prison population as some of his accomplishments. But union officials and advocates for families with incarcerated loved ones have been critical of his leadership for months.

Healthcare workers and correction officers have expressed concerns repeatedly during the coronavirus pandemic that DOC policies have left inmates and staff at risk of exposure to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Cook inherited the agency just months after the state severed ties with the University of Connecticut’s Correctional Managed Health Care which was providing medical services to inmates.

Several federal and state lawsuits indicated that Correctional Managed Health Care was providing substandard care leading to serious illnesses and deaths. The state opted to place health care in the hands of the DOC in July 2018. Within months staffing shortages were driving up overtime for health care staff who said the situation was becoming unmanageable.

Cook has tried to hire new staff as quickly as possible but wound up in the last budget year with a $20 million deficiency due to overtime costs for health care workers and increased costs associated with taking over medical care for 12,000 inmates.

Cook also drew fire as the pandemic began ramping up across the state in early March when he announced that inmates would be released according to routine protocols. Two state and federal lawsuits filed by the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union contended that Cook and Lamont had the power to release more inmates, particularly those who are medically fragile, during the pandemic.

The state lawsuit was dismissed by a Superior Court Judge but an appeal of the dismissal was set to be heard before the state Supreme Court. That lawsuit was dismissed a second time when the federal lawsuit filed by the CT ACLU was settled last week.

As part of the settlement, the DOC is required to provide better sanitation and more soap to inmates. The agency was also given the task of identifying medically fragile inmates and determining if they could be released.

The state’s prison population has dropped by about 2,000 since March 1, in part due to fewer people being held after being arrested. Cook applauded the agency’s work to give discretionary releases and furloughs since the pandemic started. But advocates for families with incarcerated loved ones said the DOC isn’t responding quickly enough to the threat of COVID-19.

Hundreds of inmates tested positive for COVID-19 and seven have died since March 1.

“I think he made it clear that he misses his family which is in Utah,” said Michael Lawlor, the former Undersecretary for Criminal Justice under the administration of Gov. Dannel Malloy. “Aside from all the normal pressures of running a correctional department, the COVID situation adds to the complexity, and that may have played a role.”

Anyone who replaces Cook will be operating in a new world, Lawlor said. “This moment in particular demonstrates the need for a reformer,” Lawlor said. “Black Lives Matter, reducing mass incarceration, those things are real and someone has to be equipped to handle that. The prison population is lower and post-COVID, it’s likely they will have to oversee the closing of a few prisons when there is no longer a need for social distancing.”

Cook’s resignation will be effective July 1, 2020. Lamont has appointed Angel Quiros, the Connecticut Department of Correction Deputy Commissioner of Operations and Rehabilitative Services, to serve as acting commissioner while he conducts a national search to permanently fill the position.