A shuttered wing of Osborn Correctional Institute (CTNewsJunkie file photo)

Gov. Ned Lamont proposed “right-sizing” corrections by closing prisons, cutting the cost of inmate phone calls, funding prosecutorial transparency initiatives and offering $6.3 million to train 255 state troopers as part of his two-year budget released Wednesday.

His recommendations were announced as advocacy groups rallied online and on the steps of the Capitol to support major incarceration reforms including the demolition of the state’s “supermax” prison and free phone calls for inmates.

Lamont is seeking a $20 million savings in 2022 and a $40 million savings in 2023 by closing prisons and certain units within prisons and adjusting the workforce, according to his proposed budget. The move is part of a drive to streamline government functions as 25% of the state work force becomes eligible to retire by June 2022.

In his budget document, Lamont said the closing of Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s only maximum security prison, “will memorialize Connecticut’s progress as a national leader in correction policy and practice and demonstrate the state’s commitment to cost-effective use of resources.”

But advocates with Stop Solitary CT and the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union Smart Justice campaign who rallied on the Capitol steps Wednesday want the money to be directed toward helping the communities most impacted by incarceration.

“Savings from prison closures, in particular the closure of Northern, must be used to protect the lives of incarcerated people,” Stop Solitary CT said in a statement issued after the budget was released. “The closure of Northern will not memorialize Connecticut’s progress as a national leader in correction policy if the state does not commit to a change in policy. We must end prolonged isolation throughout the DOC (Department of Correction) and invest in external oversight.”

At the same time, Lamont will offer the Judicial Branch $1 million to offset a loss in revenue that will come with a reduction in the cost of inmate calls. The state has been making a 68% commission on the calls, which amounts to about $7.7 million a year.

The bulk of the money – about $5 million goes to the Judicial Branch to pay for probation officers who help keep inmates from violating probation. The state Department of Correction gets $350,000 for inmate programming and the Criminal Justice Information System gets $2 million from the calls.

Lamont’s proposal to cut the cost of inmate calls depends on the state Department of Administrative Services renegotiating the contract with prison communications company Securus Technologies. Lamont did not indicate that the calls would be free, as part of the proposal.

As Lamont’s pre-taped budget address was airing Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and advocates from the Connecticut Connecting Families Coalition were calling for free phone calls for inmates.

The burden of paying for the calls often falls on low-income people of color who make up the bulk of the prison population, Looney said. Many inmates are from urban areas of the state while most of the prisons are in rural towns, he said.

“There’s a distance to travel for a person to visit and that can be very hard,” Looney said. He and Rep. Josh Elliot, D-Hamden, have proposed legislation that would make the calls free. “It’s a matter of justice, it’s a matter of equity and it’s a matter of racial equity,” Elliott said.

Diane Lewis, whose son was incarcerated, would at times talk with him while sitting in the dark, she said. That’s because she was forced to choose between paying for calls to the prison and paying for electricity. “I chose to pay the phone bill so the lights went out,” Lewis said. “He didn’t know I was sitting in the dark, but I had to stay connected to him.”

“The Connecticut Connecting Families coalition is disappointed to see Governor Lamont backtracking on his earlier commitment and is looking to the legislature to create real relief for struggling families,” the group said. 

The group staged a virtual press conference as Lamont’s pre-recorded budget address was aired. They contend that under Lamont’s plan, savings to families of incarcerated individuals would be minimal.

Lamont is also seeking $1.168 million to fund nine positions to implement the Office of the Inspector General which will investigate deadly use of police force incidents and in-custody deaths. The process to hire the Inspector General is still in question with the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force recommending that candidates from a broader pool of attorneys be allowed to apply. The office, which will fall under the state’s Division of Criminal Justice, up to this point was not funded.

To enhance prosecutorial transparency Lamont is proposing $195,000 to hire three paralegals for the Division of Criminal Justice to review body camera footage and other electronic evidence and help the agency gather data on arrests that can be publicly viewed as it switches to all digital files.

Lamont also wants to fund three positions within the Division of Criminal Justice to start a Convictions Integrity Unit which would re-investigate the cases of people who claim to be wrongly convicted.

Lamont announced Monday that Northern CI, the state’s maximum security prison built in 1995 would close by July 1. The closing would save $12.6 million a year in operational costs which Lamont said would go to reducing the state’s deficit.

But Barbara Fair who has worked with Stop Solitary CT since 2017 seeking reforms said she was disheartened by suggestions that the prison was closing for financial reasons.

“What about the human capital?” Fair said. “This isn’t about the money, it’s about saving lives.”

Stop Solitary CT and the ACLU of Connecticut are calling for the demolition of Northern CI which was the subject of a civil rights lawsuit filed last week so that the facility can never be used again.

The lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Connecticut on behalf of mentally ill inmates contends conditions at the prison are horrendous with some people shackled in their cells for periods of up to 23 hours a day with no human contact.

The population at the prison, which is used for “administrative segregation” for inmates who commit assaults or other offenses, has dwindled to 65 as of this week. At its peak in 2003, Northern CI held 503 inmates who were either on death row or in punitive isolation, officials said.

“We need to know how it will be closed and that it will never be open again,” Fair said.