Men start lining up at their cell doors about 10 minutes before inmates at Cheshire Correctional Institution are let out for recreation time each day, Ray Boyd recalled.
“There are six showers and 12 phones for 52 men,” Boyd said. “Because they aren’t out of their cell, when you open those doors it’s like when you finally let the dog out and they go running.”
People are moving quickly to the shower or the phone since they only have one hour of out time per day, he said.
“Tensions rise, there are altercations,” Boyd said. “More out of cell time would release a lot of that tension, people are bickering over time on the phone and time in the shower. That one hour has to include time for exercise too.”
Boyd is one of several formerly incarcerated individuals who are working with Stop Solitary Connecticut to revive the PROTECT, Promoting Responsible Oversight Treatment and Effective Correctional Transparency, Act vetoed by Gov. Ned Lamont after it was approved by the House and the Senate last year.
In its original form, the bill increased the out of cell time for inmates to six hours a day, limited the practice of in-cell shackling and isolation and mandated independent oversight of the state Department of Correction by an ombudsman.
The version that is expected to be forwarded to Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, Monday will include a ban on in-cell shackling and other refinements including limiting the use of strip searches to only when absolutely necessary, said Stop Solitary CT co-founder Barbara Fair.
Last time the group was willing to seek the reduction of in-cell restraints, which disability rights advocates have called a form of torture for mentally ill inmates, Fair said.
“We have decided we can’t compromise on the in-cell restraints, it’s too abusive,” said Fair who has been meeting with DOC officials weekly to craft the revised version of the bill. “They (the DOC) brought up if the restraints should used in cases of self-harm. But I said, if someone is banging their head against the wall, that tells me that person is seriously ill. The in-cell shackling has to stop happening and now we’re calling for a complete ban.”
Fair and others will be at the Capitol on opening day of the legislative session on Feb. 9 to hand out literature and lobby for the passage of the updated bill.
This time it’s political, Fair said. Lamont, a Democrat, is seeking re-election in November and will likely run against Bob Stefanowski, a Madison Republican who lost by 44,000 votes, Fair said.
“Stefanowski almost won but it was the cities that put Lamont over the top,” Fair said. “Now Lamont needs to think about New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport. Maybe it’s time to listen to the people who put you in office because they are the ones most impacted by incarceration. We’re asking to treat people like human beings. When they come back from prison damaged, that doesn’t make the community safer.”
It’s a stance that is shared by Boyd and Michael Braham who both were released in 2021 after serving more than two decades in state prisons on murder convictions.
Boyd, who is now seeking his real estate license, was released in November after spending 29-and-half-years incarcerated, he said. While at Cheshire CI, he co-founded the TRUE Re-Entry Unit, a six-month program that helps graduates of TRUE get ready for release into the community.
TRUE, an acronym for Truthfulness to oneself and others, Respectfulness to the community, Understanding ourselves and what brought us here and Elevating to success, is a specialized program at Cheshire CI that pairs mentors doing life sentences with young men for extensive therapeutic experiences to prevent recidivism.
It’s Boyd’s belief that the entire system of incarceration in the state needs to be abolished. But he’s not suggesting that no one should go to prison for their crimes. “We need new ideas,” Boyd said.
It has to start with more out of cell time, Boyd said. “There were no physical altercations in TRUE in the five years it’s been in existence,” Boyd said. “I think that’s due to the time they are out of their cells and the constant programming.”
Tensions are high when people are locked down for 23 hours a day, he said. “It’s the guys that are serving the longest sentences who are holding this together,” Boyd said. “Those are the guys who are telling the knuckleheads not to act out.”
Braham was released in June after serving 25 years for a murder he committed when he was 21. While incarcerated he received his Associate’s degree, two Bachelor’s degrees and his certification as a paralegal.
He is now working for his attorney Alex Taubes, who won both men their freedom through successful sentence modifications, while Braham attends a two-year Yale University program that will prepare him for law school.
The DOC needs independent oversight, Braham, Boyd and Taubes said. Even though Lamont issued an executive order after vetoing the PROTECT ACT that required inmates who are not being disciplined to be out of their cells for four hours a day, it’s not being followed, the men said.
“Connecticut is one of the last states that has no independent oversight of its corrections,” Taubes said. “We are talking about basic human rights. Locking someone in a cell for a period of greater than 20 hours a day creates psychological and criminological tendencies that make society less safe.”
Taubes said Lamont “pandered” to the unions representing correction officers when he vetoed the legislation days before he was slated to sign it. “This serves neither the unions nor the people they serve when they put people in cells for 23 hours a day,” Taubes said.
Lamont’s executive order addressed several concerns laid out in the 2021 PROTECT Act including stipulations that inmates who were placed in restraints have to be monitored every four hours by a shift commander or a designee compared to the previous standard which was every 24 hours.
The order also required the agency to limit the use of isolated confinement on “vulnerable populations” including those under 18 or over 65, people with mental health needs, people with a developmental disability or a serious medical condition that cannot be treated in isolated confinement, women who are pregnant or postpartum or who have recently suffered a miscarriage or ended a pregnancy and people with a significant auditory or visual impairment.
DOC officials called the executive order a “heavy lift” that has taken months to implement.
Prior to the order, the DOC added 15 minutes a day of out of cell time to meal times but the men can’t shower, make phone calls or exercise during those periods, Boyd said. The pandemic and the number of correction officers out at any given time has kept people in their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, both men said.
“You don’t know what you get when you put people in those conditions when they get back into the community,” Braham said.
That’s the point of the legislation, Fair said. This time around Fair is making sure more people are educated on the benefits of the law and that Lamont will hear more voices than the DOC, she said. In addition to not going far enough to implement reforms, the executive order can be rescinded at any time, making it a priority to get the PROTECT Act signed into law, she said.
“I don’t want to be an adversary,” Fair said of her relationship with the DOC. “I want to be an ally.”