Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski near Cheshire Correctional Institution Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

From a sun-baked park across the street from Cheshire Correctional Institution, Bob Stefanowski on Thursday called on Gov. Ned Lamont to immediately purchase 30 portable air conditioning units to cool down the sweltering prison.

“That’s what I’d do if I were governor,” the Republican gubernatorial candidate said. “I’d hop in my black SUV or better yet I’d hop in my pickup truck, I’d go to Home Depot, just like we did with the masks when Governor Lamont didn’t provide it, and I’d have them at the front gate by the end of business today. That’s what this governor should be doing. Not making excuses, not limiting access, not ignoring the pleas for help but get his tail up here and get some units in there.”

The suggestion was perhaps the most immediate of Stefanowski’s plans for improving living and working conditions in Connecticut prisons. He outlined the proposals from a podium flanked by photographs of handmade weapons confiscated by correction officers and a poster of a prison under the words “Temps as high as 95° F.” The implication was clear: it’s become too dangerous inside state correctional facilities. And too hot. 

Lamont’s campaign responded with a statement which recalled the Republican’s criticisms of previously negotiated state employee contracts and claimed that his policies would make Connecticut less safe.

“Governor Lamont’s responsible budgeting means that we can attack crime at its roots – funding our schools, mental health services, and treatment programs – while giving officers the tools, training and benefits they need to be partners and protectors in the communities they serve,” Onotse Omoyeni, a spokesperson for the campaign, said.

However throughout the mid-morning press conference, the Madison Republican sought to appeal to Connecticut correctional workers, the single largest pool of state employees, many of whom have grown frustrated with policymakers. 

The last two Democratic administrations have shifted away from punitive correctional policies and embraced a treatment-oriented approach designed to reduce recidivism and drive down the prison population. Over the past two years, the legislature and the Lamont administration have worked to enact policies that limit the use of solitary confinement in prisons in an effort to reduce the psychological impact of being held in isolation for prolonged periods. 

Some correction officers have argued the new policies have made prisons unsafe. Meanwhile, staffing shortages have resulted in mandated, 16-hour overtime shifts at many of the state’s institutions. 

“Can you imagine being in a hundred degree heat for 16 hours?” Stefanowski said. “So I’m here today to advocate for them.”

Stefanowski’s proposals ranged from boosting staffing levels, assessing and modernizing facility amenities like HVAC systems, adding more shower stalls for incarcerated people, and providing long-promised “hero pay” for correction employees who worked through the pandemic. 

If elected, Stefanowski said he would “absolutely” spend more money funding the state’s prison system, though he couldn’t say how much. He told reporters he applied months ago to tour a prison facility but was denied by the Lamont administration for political reasons. 

“The governor doesn’t want his opponent to going into a facility with horrible conditions, I get it, especially in an election year,” Stefanowski said.

A spokesperson for the Correction Department did not return a call for comment regarding his request to tour a facility. 

Throughout the Thursday event, Stefanowski did not advocate for rolling back the prison policies enacted over the last few years. Instead, he said the state should hire more staff to implement them. 

“The governor has granted inmates more out-of-cell time, now that’s a good thing,” Stefanowski said. “Let the inmates get out of their cells more often. The problem is he hasn’t increased staff to accommodate it, which is creating a higher risk situation every single day.”

Asked whether a Stefanowski administration would prioritize custody concerns or back the more treatment-based approach preferred by recent administrations and states across the country, Stefanowski said he had not yet developed specific policies, but would start with input from frontline staff.

“I think the objective is always [to] rehabilitate, particularly with younger people,” he said. “Get the issues behind you and get them back out into the community but I also think the issue right now is you have to have safety and comfort while you do that.”

Many of Stefanowski’s comments Thursday aligned closely with concerns voiced in recent months by unions representing correctional workers. The union, AFSCME Council 4, has not yet made endorsements in this year’s campaign cycle but released a statement in response to the Republican’s event.

“Improving the safety and security in Connecticut prisons is not a partisan issue.” AFSCME Council 4 Executive Director Jody Barr said. “The Department of Correction needs to hire more staff and fill more posts. And lawmakers need to revisit the effects of well-intended legislation that has worsened the safety and security of staff, inmates and our communities.”