Connecticut Department of Correction officials plan to hire an external criminal justice consultant to review the state’s prison policies in response to an increasing number of incidents including assaults on staff members, which have roughly doubled since 2019.
In statements Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont’s office and the DOC both described plans to address a string of violent incidents in Connecticut prisons. Those efforts will include an internal review of the agency’s safety measures and the contracting of an outside consultant to suggest possible changes.
“[T]he Department of Correction is initiating a process to hire an independent, external criminal justice consulting group to assess the agency’s current programs to identify ways to ensure that they are meeting the highest standards of safety and compliance,” Adam Joseph, Lamont’s chief spokesman, said in an email.
The move follows a turbulent week in Connecticut prisons. Two correction officers were rushed to an area hospital last Tuesday after they were stabbed by an incarcerated man at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown. Another guard was treated for injuries related to a Thursday assault by an individual incarcerated in a prison in Cheshire.
Meanwhile, 10 individuals participated in a Friday night brawl at Corrigan Correctional Center in Uncasville, according to the DOC. Although no one was injured in the most recent incident, a similar melee at the same facility last year resulted in nine injured officers and one injured incarcerated man.
These incidents, as well as a June assault that left a guard knocked unconscious on the floor of MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, have prompted labor unions representing correction officers to complain of increasingly unsafe working conditions.
Statistics provided by the DOC in response to information requests from CTNewsJunkie suggest that state prisons have become a more dangerous place to work and in some cases be incarcerated.
Ninety-five DOC employees experienced an assault at work during fiscal year 2019. The number of assaults has increased every year since then. During the fiscal year that ended in July 2023, the agency recorded 196 staff assaults — more than double FY19.
The number of fights between incarcerated individuals has also increased, though not as consistently. The Correction Department recorded 631 inmate fights in FY19. That number jumped to 842 during FY20 amid the early pandemic, then dropped to 652 in FY21. It has been on the rise since then, growing to 858 in FY22 and 910 in FY23.
Increases in the number of violent incidents have coincided with dramatic fluctuations in the number of people incarcerated in Connecticut prisons.
In April of 2021, 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.
The incarcerated population has rebounded since courts have resumed operation. As of Aug. 1, 2023, there were 10,155 people in state prisons — still well below the 12,000 people who were incarcerated before the pandemic.
So what is driving the increase in violent incidents? It depends on who you ask.
Labor unions representing Connecticut correction officers generally point to policies that have reduced the incarcerated population, leaving a higher concentration of violent offenders behind bars, coupled with a series of prison reforms adopted by the state legislature in an effort to minimize the use of solitary confinement.
In an interview Tuesday, Collin Provost, president of AFSCME Local 391, said the agency had implemented policies that have required more out-of-cell time for the population, putting more individuals together in the same limited dayroom spaces, without also increasing the number of officers on hand to supervise those situations.
Provost was unimpressed by the administration’s plan to bring in a consultant.
“We’ve had several assaults back-to-back-to-back and we’re answered with an email that says we’re going to have somebody outside come in and look at our system. No actual changes as a reactive response,” Provost said. “If a police department had a rise in crime in one area, they wouldn’t wait six months and do a study — they’d send more cops in immediately to reduce the violence.”
Others arrived at different conclusions. Barbara Fair is a lead organizer for the group Stop Solitary CT, who has often served as an advocate for Connecticut’s incarcerated population. Fair was skeptical Tuesday of the DOC’s assault statistics, which she worried might undermine the reforms her group fought to see adopted in state statute.
To the extent that violent incidents have increased, Fair suggested they may be attributable to a combination of growing pains as the new policies are implemented and a failure on the part of the Correction Department to provide adequate social programming for its population.
“We wanted time out-of-cell with pro-social activities because when you keep people caged up all these years you can’t just let them out free. That would be a disaster… We want them to teach them how to get along with each other because they haven’t had to do that, being in cages with one other person,” Fair said. “Now you have to slowly do things to help them socialize again. That was part of the package that [the DOC] is totally ignoring.”
Michael Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at New Haven University and former state legislator, said Tuesday that some of the recent problems may be related to providing incarcerated people more out-of-cell time without providing structured programming to fill that time.
“The challenge now is to find a way to more constructively engage persons who are incarcerated when they’re not in their cell,” he said. “That is somewhat staff-intensive, it’s absolutely a culture-change.”
Lawlor, a former advisor to Gov. Dannel Malloy, pointed to the successes of T.R.U.E. unit at Cheshire Correctional Institution. The program was created by the Malloy administration to prepare young offenders for reentry through mentorship programs with older offenders.
He said he hoped the recent rise in violence would not prompt policymakers to rollback effective reforms.
“Let’s not minimize the fact that these staff were assaulted. It’s unacceptable and it needs to be stopped,” Lawlor said. “But you could do more harm than good with a knee-jerk response to lock these guys up all the time and leave it at that.”