SOMERS, CT — Advocates for people in Connecticut prisons called Tuesday for the closure of Northern Correctional Institution in Somers and the redirection of its operating budget towards programs and services aimed at helping former prison inmates.
Northern, the state’s only maximum security prison, was reviled throughout a midday Zoom conference as a “dungeon” and a “monument to racism.” Its continued operation amounted to the “state-sanctioned terror” of the inmates incarcerated there, said Barbara Fair, an advocate with anti-solitary confinement group Stop Solitary CT.
“Northern is a place primarily filled with young men of color. They’re sent there to break their spirits, to shatter their minds and to reduce them to broken men who face a lifetime of scars from that torture,” she said.
Fair and others called on the General Assembly to pass a bill to force the Correction Department to close the facility and use its operating budget—$14.4 million, according to the department—to address the health, mental health, and housing needs of inmates after they are released from prison.
Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who is co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, spoke during the event. He said he supported the group’s efforts and would push to make sure the proposal gets a fair hearing by lawmakers.
“None of us know what’s going to happen in this session but certainly if we don’t put forward what we think should happen, nothing will happen,” he said.
Northern, which opened in 1995, has long been a symbol of that era’s tough-on-crime corrections philosophy. Its use has dwindled under the administrations of Democratic Govs. Dannel Malloy and Ned Lamont, who have enacted more treatment-based prison policies. As of Tuesday, the prison, which can house around 500 inmates, had only 74 men incarcerated there.
Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros has been open about his intent to close at least one of Connecticut’s 15 correctional institutions since he took over last year. Northern is widely expected to be one of the most likely candidates for closure among agency staff.
Karen Martucci, a spokeswoman for the Correction Department, said whichever facility closes next, the staff working there and the inmates living there will be informed before the information is released to the general public.
Martucci noted that most of Northern’s operating budget was spent on expenses like staff salaries, which cannot be diverted to other causes because staff members are not laid off when a prison closes. Of the $14.4 million it costs to run the prison, $13.1 million was labor related. Meaning that aside from potential reductions in overtime costs at the remaining facilities, the fiscal savings of closing a prison may not be as large as advocates guess. She also rejected some of the human rights violations alleged by advocates Tuesday.
“We have a group of dedicated correctional professionals that work at Northern in all sorts of capacities. To state that they’re part of some level of torture or inhumane treatment, that’s insulting to our staff,” she said. “They’re doing their jobs. I certainly wouldn’t want them to be portrayed in that light. That’s not an accurate light to depict them in.”
The union representing state correction officers has sought to dissuade the agency from closing any facilities including Northern. Collin Provost, president AFSCME Local 391, the chapter that represents staff at Northern, said the facility proved useful during the first wave of the COVID-19 virus when it was used to house infected inmates.
“Northern, it’s kinda low-hanging fruit. They’re looking for someplace that’s easy to attack. I think right now, with Northern’s previous mission, it’s that type of a facility. However, it has changed a lot since then and it’s not just used as a supermax anymore,” he said.
Provost said he thought the facility could be repurposed as something other than a supermax with a tough reputation.
“It makes a heck of a lot more sense than just closing it up and throwing away the key,” he said.