Gov. Ned Lamont on Wednesday nominated Deputy Commissioner Angel Quiros to serve as the new commissioner of the state Department of Correction. If he’s confirmed by the legislature, Quiros will be the state’s first Latino DOC commissioner.
An employee for 31 years at the DOC, Quiros, 52, grew up in the Park Street area of Hartford. He took over the helm in July as the interim commissioner following the departure of Rollin Cook.
“We looked all over the country and found the best candidate right here,” Lamont said.
Cook resigned in June and returned to his family in Utah.
Lamont said Cook left “beleaguered” as the agency was dealing with the coronavirus, which sparked lawsuits against the agency as 9% of inmates tested positive for the virus. Seven have died.
Cook also had to contend with budget deficits, mostly based on the agency’s 2018 decision to take over its healthcare system, which had been contracted out to the University of Connecticut’s Correctional Managed Health Care unit.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, DOC unions have been displeased with leadership’s handling of the public health crisis, while advocates have pushed for more releases, more cleaning and more social distancing.
DOC union leaders who represent correction officers and other staff wished Quiros well on his appointment. But they also pointed out that there is more work to be done to get the agency on track.
“We urge him to improve the lines of communication between management and frontline employees responsible for maintaining safety and security throughout Connecticut’s prison system,” said AFSCME NP-4 Corrections Bargaining Unit presidents Sean Howard (Local 387), Collin Provost (Local 391) and Michael Vargo (Local 1565). “The incoming commissioner certainly has his work cut out for him. The department’s lack of planning and preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic exposed staff and inmates to illness and created volatile working conditions throughout our prisons.”
“We wish the new commissioner good luck,” the trio said. “At the same time, we cannot emphasize strongly enough that a good commissioner will listen to our concerns and ideas, and treat us as partners in helping the agency move forward.”
Quiros said the rate of COVID-19 infections is now down to about 3%, with about four inmates per month testing positive, based on the protocols put in place by the agency including health care workers in the prisons.
He acknowledged that mistakes were made early in the pandemic, including denying symptomatic inmates access to showers while they were housed at the Northern Correctional Facility, one of the state’s most restrictive facilities.
“I am moving away from Northern,” said Quiros, who went on to explain that some inmates were hiding symptoms out of fear of being housed at Northern. He has a different facility in mind for inmates who test positive, but hasn’t told the warden yet, Quiros said.
As the new commissioner, Quiros will be operating under a settlement with the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union, which sued Lamont and the DOC over prison conditions during the pandemic. The lawsuit was settled last month and requires a commission to review practices including the identification of medically fragile inmates for release, enhanced cleaning measures, and more social distancing to help stem the spread of the virus.
The CT ACLU which has been critical of the way Cook handled the pandemic called Lamont out on his 2018 campaign promise to include the public and stakeholders such as formerly incarcerated individuals in the search process for a new DOC commissioner. It is the second time that a DOC commissioner has been appointed under Lamont without public input.
“The Lamont administration has consistently ignored and belittled the public health threat of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, a threat faced by a population that is more than 70 percent Black and Latinx,” Medina said.
“The Governor’s appointment of a new DOC commissioner without meaningful public engagement is the latest example of an administration that has, at times literally, shut off its lines of communication with the most vulnerable people it is supposed to serve,” Medina said.
Medina also said the appointment without public hearings or feedback, “demonstrates disappointing disregard for transparency and public engagement and backtracks on the spirit of a campaign promise Lamont made in 2018.”
The organization contends Lamont’s administration “did not meaningfully solicit feedback, even virtually, from people and communities whose lives are directly impacted by the DOC’s decisions.”
Quiros also will consider closing correctional facilities in the spring once the prison system gets through what could be a second wave of the coronavirus. As of Sept.1, the inmate population is down to around 9,500 – 50% lower than its peak in 2008. Nearly 3,000 inmates have been released since the pandemic began impacting the state in March – but crime has remained at a 51-year low, Lamont said, and fewer people are returning to prison on technical violations.
Plans are underway to increase visitation for families, which had been suspended when the pandemic reached the state, Quiros said. Initiatives include more visits on Zoom and Microsoft Teams until socially distanced visits can take place, he said.
Quiros drove through his old neighborhood in Hartford on his way to his second interview for the commissioner’s job last week, he said. He viewed the job as an opportunity to help the people in his old neighborhood and keep the residents of Connecticut safe while allowing incarcerated individuals a second chance at life by providing enhanced programs.
“No one deserves to be defined by their biggest mistake,” Quiros said.
The agency is now better prepared for a second wave of infections with a greater stockpile of personal protective equipment and better ways to separate those who are symptomatic from the rest of the prison population, he said.
“We’ve learned a lot,” Quiros said. “There’s a lot of data on our mistakes we made, but we are better prepared for the fall.”
The agency employs 6,000 people and runs 13 facilities, said Marc Pelka, undersecretary of criminal justice for the state Office of Policy and Management.
“It’s a demanding job,” Pelka said of the role of DOC commissioner.
Quiros, who worked his way up through the ranks since starting as a correction officer three decades ago, was the right choice for the job, Pelka said. “When he’s tested on the job, he makes the tough, right, decisions,” Pelka said.
Quiros’ appointment will have to be confirmed by the legislature. The salary is $167,000 a year.