A cell at a shuttered wing at Osborn Correctional Institute (CTNewsJunkie file photo)

Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order Tuesday curtailing the use of solitary confinement minutes after he vetoed a bill containing broad restrictions on the way the state Department of Correction handles isolation, restraints, and social connections.

Union officials representing correction officers were about to stage a rally outside the Capitol to encourage Lamont to veto a bill known as the “PROTECT ACT,” that would have required the DOC to allow inmates to have six-and-a-half hours a day outside of their cells.

But minutes before the rally was set to start, news of Lamont’s veto changed the tone to a celebration. “I feel great, I’m happy, our members are happy, this is good,” said Aimmie Reyes-Greaves, an industries supervisor at Osborn Correctional Institution and a member of the executive board of AFSCME Local 391. “My concerns were about adequate staffing. The bill would have caused a great shift in how we ran every day.”

Correction officers and the unions representing them were challenging several aspects of the bill including the requirement that they get permission from a captain or higher supervisor to place restraints on a combative or disruptive inmate and restricted use of isolation for discipline.

Aimmie Reyes-Greaves (Contributed photo)
Aimmie Reyes-Greaves (Contributed photo)

“You’re putting staff and inmates at risk,” with the out-of-cell requirement, said AFSCME Local 387 President Sean Howard, who is a correction officer at Cheshire Correctional Institution. “There would be two correction officers for every 100 inmates. We can only keep our eyes on so many at once.”

Lamont agreed.

“I am not signing this legislation because, as written, it puts the safety of incarcerated persons and correction employees at substantial risk,” Lamont wrote in his veto message. “This legislation places unreasonable and dangerous limits on the use of restraints.”

Union officials and correction officers met with Lamont last week to express their concerns, Howard said. “I really want to thank the governor for listening to our concerns. There is a huge sense of relief throughout the whole department. We can now continue to do our jobs in a safe way.”

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The bill would have prohibited inmates from being kept in their cells for more than 16 ½ hours a day unless there was a facility-wide lockdown or emergency. The legislation also created an Office of Correction Ombudsman to investigate inmate complaints, review DOC policies and have the power to advocate for inmates and recommend change.

Other facets of the bill would have required the DOC to provide inmates with a minimum number of social and legal letters, free social and legal phone calls and 60 minutes of social contact visits per week.

Advocates including members of Stop Solitary CT fought hard to get the bill passed. The legislation initially called for the closure of Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s only super maximum prison where inmates who were disciplinary problems were sent to spend time in isolation.

Lamont announced that Northern would close four days after Disability Rights Connecticut filed a federal lawsuit in February claiming “horrendous” conditions at the prison were a form of torture for inmates with mental health concerns. Northern formally closed earlier this month, about three weeks ahead of schedule.

Howard contended that the DOC would have had to hire 200 additional staff, not including supervisors, to maintain order with so many inmates out of their cell at the same time. He also said that correction officers had no input into the legislation.

“The problem is people who don’t do our job are trying to tell us how to do our job,” Howard said.

But legislative leaders who crafted the bill, which included concessions based on conversations with DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros, said the union’s concerns are unfounded and inaccurate.

“There was a suggestion that 44 to 88 new employees would be needed to do eight hours of out of cell time,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who as the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee helped write the bill. “We reduced it to six-and-a-half hours. If the bill requires less, why would they need twice the people?”

Winfield said Lamont’s office did not reach out to him to discuss the bill and did not provide any indication that he was considering a veto.

Lamont addressed several issues raised in the bill in his executive order while reducing many of the requirements. Under the executive order, those inmates who are in the general population will be allowed to spend four hours a day outside of their cells and those who are in restrictive housing will be allowed two hours a day outside of their cells.

Lamont’s order said that by September 1, inmates in the general population can only be placed in isolation due to their disciplinary status and by Dec. 1 “no person shall be held in prolonged isolated confinement.”  

Winfield said many of the provisions of the executive order were already in the bill, making him wonder why Lamont vetoed the legislation. “The reasons he’s doing what he’s doing don’t add up,” Winfield said.

In order to overcome the veto, legislators would need a two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate. Winfield said he believes the votes aren’t there. “I think everybody who knows me, knows I’m going to try again next year,” Winfield said.

Howard and others said earlier in the day that if the bill becomes law, assaults on inmates and staff will increase – and so will workers’ compensation claims – under the proposed restrictions.

“As of right now we are content with the victory,” Reyes-Greaves said. “Whatever happens moving forward, I’m sure we can come to some resolution that sees to the safety of staff and the inmates we are sworn to protect. If there is any future legislation, I hope they get input from people on the ground in the facility doing the job.”

This was Lamont’s first veto of the year. He’s signed 132 bills.