Credit: Christine Stuart photo

Connecticut correctional workers are on pace to experience an increase in assaults by inmates for the third straight year even as the state’s prison population remains well below its pre-pandemic levels.

In a nine-month period from last July through the end of March, staff members in Connecticut prisons and jails were assaulted 132 times, according to preliminary statistics from the Department of Correction. If that rate continues, the agency is on track to surpass the 163 assaults that occurred in facilities last year and the 100 assaults recorded the year prior.

In a statement, DOC spokesperson Ashley McCarthy said the agency continually reviews its policies and training guidance to maintain a safe environment for both its staff and its incarcerated population. 

“As an Agency we are equally attentive to the care and well-being of the individuals under our supervision and our dedicated correctional professionals,” McCarthy said. “Our staff consistently answers the call to action to preserve a safe and secure environment; at times knowing they may be at risk.”

The growing number of attacks on the agency’s custody and treatment staff has curiously accompanied a historic reduction in the number of people incarcerated in Connecticut. 

Last April, the state’s prison population dropped to 8,918, its lowest point in decades. Policy efforts to reduce incarceration combined with Connecticut’s long-declining crime rates had contributed to a steady reduction in the number of people behind bars. When the COVID-19 pandemic stalled court operations, the prison census dropped sharply. 

As courts have resumed operations, the state’s prison population has seen modest growth. As of June 1, just over 9,900 people were locked up in Connecticut. Despite the uptick, the population remains well below the more than 12,000 people who were incarcerated before the pandemic.

Throughout all those fluctuations, however, assaults on staff have risen. From 2018 to 2019, the agency reported 95 staff assaults. This year, it’s on pace to reach 176.

Most recent assault

Correction officers at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield experienced one such incident a little after 7 p.m. on Memorial Day when guards working in the facility’s high-security Walker building were moving men in handcuffs to and from the prison’s shower area. 

According to an incident report filed by staff, one of the incarcerated men, Levarr Frasier, slipped out of the handcuffs, seized a correction officer, and pressed a 4-inch chunk of sharpened plastic to the other man’s neck. 

The report described a struggle, during which Frasier tried to force his way into the unit’s officer station in an apparent attempt to unlock the cell of another individual who he had previously fought with. A lieutenant responded by spraying Frasier in the face with pepper spray and staff members were able to gain control of the shank. 

The incident resulted in a new felony assault charge against Frasier, which is pending in Enfield Superior Court. According to the report, the officer who had been taken hostage was unharmed but for a red mark on the left side of his neck.

But such incidents have a psychological effect on staff, according to Collin Provost, an officer assigned to MacDougall-Walker and president of the AFSCME Local 391. The guard involved in the incident was visibly shaken days after the event, Provost said. 

“We as an institution were shaken for a while,” Provost said. “When you have one of these incidents, the impact on the individual goes a long way and sometimes for the rest of your career.”

McCarthy, spokesperson for the DOC, encouraged any correctional staff experiencing trauma or mental health concerns to contact the agency’s Employee Assistance Unit, known as EAU.

Union concerned for officers

Provost and other labor leaders said limited staffing made it more difficult for officers to prevent such assaults. He said staffing limitations also made it harder for officers impacted by them. In many cases a staff member might quickly be assigned back to the unit where he or she was assaulted, he said.

“It’s almost like taking a person shell-shocked by war and sticking them back in the foxhole every day,” Provost said.

The union leaders also argued that recent changes to state correctional policies had contributed to the increase in incidents. 

In the spring, the state legislature voted to codify rules designed to limit the amount of time a person can be subjected to solitary confinement in state correctional facilities. For the past several years, advocates for incarcerated people have sought constraints on isolated confinement in an effort to reduce the psychological impact of being held in isolation for prolonged periods.

The new law caps the number of days a person can spend in solitary confinement at 15 days and limits the total number of days in isolation to 30 in a 60-day period. The law will also create an ombudsman to investigate complaints against the Correction Department, and a panel to oversee use of solitary. Some of the new constraints have been in place since last year as the result of an executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont. 

On Tuesday, the officers’ unions argued the recent policies have tied the hands of prison staff and emboldened those behind bars to ignore the direction of officers. 

“All our tools are being taken away,” Sean Howard, president of AFSCME Local 387, said. “The inmates right now are running the asylum with these new laws.”

However, supporters of the new policies argued it was too soon to assess their impact on prisons and said they were not likely the cause of a trend that started before their implementation. 

Is there a COVID effect?

Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said policymakers needed to look back to when assaults began increasing to identify possible roots of the problem. 

Winfield suggested the trend coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when lockdowns began disrupting life inside correctional institutions.

“Not only were programs being shut down but people couldn’t see family, communications were sometimes not working, people were afraid for their lives and they were in a prison,” Winfield said. “It’s not hard to figure out that there may be some connection.”

Michael Lawlor, a former legislator and criminal justice advisor to Gov. Dannel Malloy, said the pandemic also resulted in the cancellation of the types of programming designed to curb violence and tension inside prisons. 

Lawlor, now an associate professor at New Haven University, said he expected the number of assaults to decline as correctional programs continue to resume. 

“My prediction would be that once things return to normal in terms of pandemic-related stuff, I think you’ll see a drop-off in the number of assaults,” Lawlor said.