Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros spent his appearance before the legislature’s Appropriations Committee Wednesday discussing solitary confinement, the toll of the pandemic and meeting the demands of a federal investigation, rather than strictly the dollars and cents of his agency budget. 

The number of people now being held in “administrative segregation” is down by more than 90% since Quiros was warden of Northern Correctional Institution and the agency no longer uses solitary confinement as defined by the United Nations Mandela Rules, Quiros said.  

“We’re strictly following that in the Connecticut Department of Corrections,” Quiros said.

According to the Mandela Rules, named after Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years in South Africa, inmates should not be placed in isolation for more than 22 hours a day for more than 15 days in a 60-day period, Quiros said.

“We’ve come a long way in making progress with the administrative segregation program,” Quiros said.

But Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, who has been a staunch advocate for ending isolation practices within the DOC, disagreed. “I have a real issue with us saying that 15 days in solitary confinement with two hours a day out of cell isn’t isolation,” Porter said. “I believe it is.”

“That’s a little disturbing to hear that you would say that we don’t have solitary confinement based on the Mandela definition,” Porter added.

There are 20 inmates being held in the “administrative segregation program,” Quiros said, compared to as many as 220 in the program while he was the warden at the former supermax prison, Northern, which closed in July.

Quiros pointed out that maintaining safety for his staff includes programs like “administrative segregation” and in 2021, assaults on staff were at the highest level since 2010. There were 161 assaults on staff last year, even though the prison population was down to roughly 9,000 compared to 2010, when there were 150 assaults on staff but the population was much larger.

“I cannot operate safe facilities without safety in mind,” he said.

The past two years have been hard on staff, said Quiros, who barely discussed budget figures with the committee as he fielded questions from legislators on myriad problems that the agency is juggling.

Quiros and the state are working with federal investigators after conditions at Manson Youth Institution, the state’s prison for young males ages 15 to 22, was cited by the federal Department of Justice as violating the constitutional rights of juveniles by not providing adequate special education and mental health treatment.

Gov. Ned Lamont is proposing $1.7 million to increase mental health staff and increase educational funding based on the DOJ investigation, Quiros told the committee. “The three areas identified were operations, mental health and the school,” Quiros said. “Addressing those should bring us into compliance.”

At the same time, DOC staff has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic with more than 4,000 contracting the virus, Quiros said. He has 400 vacant correction officer positions but has recruits set to graduate from the training academy, Quiros said. There are 135 officers eligible to retire by July 1 and another 200 are out on workers’ compensation, he said. “That is the highest number I’ve seen in the past 10, 15 years,” Quiros said of the staff out on workers’ compensation, which he attributed to COVID-19.

“My staff are tired,” he said earlier. “My staff has taken a mental beating.”

Although the agency racked up $93 million in overtime, Quiros said he was confident that he would be at 92% staffing for correction officers with the addition of the next academy class.

But he needs funding to attract quality nurses and mental health clinicians, he said. “The hiring of medical nurses has been challenging,” Quiros said. “We’ve been in talks with DAS (the Department of Administrative Services), we’ve been in talks with OPM (the Office of Policy and Management), we’ve changed the criteria to get a better pool, we’ve been to job fairs, we’ve been to nursing schools, but the bottom line is during exit interviews – wages, we are not competitive.”

The agency has hired about 160 nurses while at the same time, many have retired, left for higher-paying jobs and some have been fired for misconduct, he said.

“I’ll give you an example: three weeks ago we lost three nurses from York (Correctional Institution) because Middlesex Hospital opened a branch in New London and they went to that branch because of the higher pay,” Quiros said. There are also shortages among physicians and APRNs, he said.

Quiros is also working to provide free phone calls to inmates as of Oct. 1, as set forth in a new law. He doesn’t have enough space to install more phones in some locations, so he’s piloting a program that would allow inmates to call family from tablets.

He’s also trying to get e-messaging capabilities to allow inmates throughout the entire prison system to send a message to family and friends for 20 cents a message, he said. Right now, only inmates at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution have the capability to send e-messages, Quiros said.

“Right now I’m at a standstill with allowing messaging to go statewide,” Quiros said. “We would need an additional $3.5 million to support e-messaging throughout the system.”