State Department of Correction employees submitted testimony asking the Appropriations Committee to return $1.3 million for inmate health care to the agency’s budget during a public hearing Friday.
The committee heard budget presentations from the Judicial Branch, the DOC, and other public safety agencies.
But the bulk of the comments submitted as part of the hearing centered on the DOC, with both employees and the public asking for a major redirection in funding to aid inmates and their families.
“We came before this committee in 2019 to ask for increased funding for inmate medical services,” said Laurice Brown, a licensed practical nurse at Manson Youth Institution. “Here we are again in 2021 still asking for the same thing. If you add in the pandemic and the governor’s proposed $1.3 million in cuts to inmate medical services, you put our patients at increased risk for medical errors due to overworked staff being tired from constant mandated overtime.”
The result is a lack of preventative and rehabilitative care that can reduce recidivism, said Brown, who was mandated to work overtime every day she was scheduled in December and early January.
According to Brown, there have been times when she’s worked alone during a shift because of staff shortages.
Other times, she said, the health care unit at Manson Youth Institution, which houses inmates under age 18, is shut down overnight because there were not enough people to work.
“If our budget is cut further, our ability to deliver quality care based on community standards and practices is near impossible,” said Jacob Degennaro, a nurse at Cheshire Correctional Institute. “Instead of cutting, we need to invest in staffing and resources. Depriving nurses, doctors, and mental health staff that are already at a critical level of the resources that are needed will likely push the Health Services Unit over the edge.”
DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros, a longtime employee who was appointed after the last commissioner resigned in July, said he believes he is the right person to oversee the agency during a time of transition in his written testimony.
The transition will include the July 1 closure of Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s super maximum security prison that has been under fire for isolation practices for years, and the closing of at least two other facilities in the coming months and years.
Members of Stop Solitary CT testified that the state could save $17 million a year by reducing isolation at the prisons, which is labor intensive. Barbara Fair, who has advocated for the closure of Northern CI for years, called for a freeze on hiring since the prison population is down to about 9,000.
“A reduction in their budget might move them toward fiscal responsibility,” Fair said. “I urge you to make decisions to save money and to save lives.”
The 2022 DOC budget proposed by the Lamont administration will be about $37 million less than the $667.6 million 2021 budget, largely because of a $31 million shift in worker’s compensation costs to a centralized fund within the state Department of Administrative Services, as well as a $5.3 million savings from “adjusting correction custody posts” and the $1.3 million cut to the $107 million inmate medical services budget.
The agency is still wrestling with how to provide quality inmate health care with staffing shortages and escalating costs after taking over inmate medical services from the University of Connecticut’s Correctional Managed Health Care in 2018.
But Quiros did not mention in his budget testimony the proposed $1.3 million decrease in inmate health care funding. About two years ago, his predecessor, Rollin Cook told the committee that he was $20 million over budget for health care and was short about 80 health care staff.
The Correction Department’s overtime for 2020 was pegged at $90 million – the highest of any agency, according to state Comptroller Kevin Lembo’s OpenPayroll website. Much of the money goes to health care staff and correction officers with some people making two or three times their base salaries when overtime is included.
Quiros told legislators Friday that the agency was still struggling to hire health care staff, particularly nurses.
“The only positions we’re struggling to fill is in medical service,” Quiros said. “For a nurse who has worked in the community for 10 to 15 years, that salary is not going to be attractive.”
He also conceded to Sen. Cathy Osten, a Democrat from Sprague who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, that more needs to be done to address mental health issues among inmates and that much of the information gathered is self-reported.
“We’re trying to collaborate with DMHAS (Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services) and other state agencies and see what information is out there so we have an accurate picture of the treatment and probably get into those facilities like York (Correctional Institution) and Osborn (Correctional Institution) to have individualized treatment.”
The embattled agency has been the subject of at least three lawsuits in the past year alone including two related to the DOC’s handling of the pandemic and a third related to isolation practices at Northern CI where, advocates said, inmates are at times shackled in their cells for long periods.
The state is also dealing with several pending lawsuits related to inmate health care with legislators recently agreeing to provide $20 million to settle litigation over treatment for inmates who have Hepatitis C.
The agency is also caught in a battle over the cost of inmate phone calls, which generates about $7 million a year for the Judicial Branch, the Criminal Justice Information System, and the DOC.
Chief Court Administrator Judge Patrick Carroll is asking the Appropriations Committee for an additional $2.2 million for the Judicial Branch to pay for probation officers if legislators make phone calls to inmates free.
Gov. Ned Lamont offered $1 million to the Judicial Branch in his proposed biennial budget to help offset the cost of reducing the calls by 4 cents a minute. But at least two bills would make the calls free, leaving a hole in the Judicial Branch’s budget.
The agency uses the inmate phone money to fund 28 probation officers who specifically work to reduce the prison population by monitoring and guiding former inmates through their probationary periods.
In his written testimony, Carroll also asked the Appropriations Committee for $1 million to fund the recommendations of the Commission on Judicial Compensation and $740,000 to support information technology subscription costs associated with remote technology, which the agency has come to rely on during the pandemic.