Making decisions about how to run and fund state prisons involves balancing how taxpayers’ money is spent, social concerns, public safety – not to mention all politics when parties are not disagree on a possible solution.
NBC Connecticut’s Mike Hydeck spoke with Mike Lawlor, a Democratic state legislator who knows all sides of the issue.
Lawlor has been a state legislator for two decades and is now a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven.
mike hydeck“So you’ve been in our state prisons personally, you know the system well. What does it take to try to change policies like the idea that’s being proposed right now to try to limit solitary confinement? How complex is a negotiation like that?”
Mike Lawlor“Well, it’s really complicated. You know, it’s a national phenomenon. The United States sort of leads the free world, both in terms of incarceration and the number of people detained in this type of solitary confinement. So what do you see playing in Connecticut is playing out in many states right now. The good news is that in Connecticut it looks like they have reached an agreement between the commissioner of corrections and the legislature’s lawyers on a new set of rules governing how prisoners would be incarcerated if they engaged in misconduct requiring what we generally call segregation.”
mike hydeck“So many times, we’ve heard over and over that staffing is a big concern. And that’s part of the reason why inmates are spending so much time in their cells with COVID. And they’re understaffed right now. With regards to prison guards Is that a factor of what you’ve seen And how do you approach something like that when it comes to a, taking care of staffing needs And for that prisoners can be out of their cells for more than two hours a day. Is that better pay? Are there better benefits for staff members? How are you trying to make a difference?”
Mike Lawlor“Well, staff is definitely a factor. There’s no doubt that even though we have about 3,000 fewer people incarcerated in our state than before the pandemic started, we’re still understaffed. And so you see a lot of mandatory overtime for correctional officers and health care officers and teachers and others in the Department of Correction. So that doesn’t help, okay. But I think what’s really the objective of the legislation is that people are held in what is called solitary confinement for punitive reasons, as well as protective reasons. You know, there are people who are alone because they fear being assaulted by other prisoners, and there are others who are held alone in a cell for long periods of time as punishment, and I think that’s really the crux of this issue. , you mentioned the staff, it should be noted r that by far the largest state agency by number of employees is the Department of Correction. It is almost twice t It size of the second largest department, Department of Correction, Department of Children and Families. It is therefore an important problem for the State. And, you know, I think people are generally aware right now, we’re expecting a big wave of retirements later this year as the rules change for state pensioners, people trying to retire before these new rules come into effect. So it’s a real challenge for the Department of Corrections.”
mike hydeck“So quite a few prisoners recently, more than ever before, have testified before the Judiciary Committee, a committee that you used to chair years ago. They’ve submitted letters, alleging abuse, things like sensory deprivation, i.e. not having a window in their cell.They allege using food as a means of controlling inmates, feeding them very early, then waiting much later to feed them, things When they write these claims and present them to the Judiciary Committee, does that have an impact on lawmakers when they’re trying to make decisions moving forward, do you think?”
Mike Lawlor: “I think it has an impact on some lawmakers. I think there are certainly a number of lawmakers who really don’t care, do they? It’s just a fact about incarcerated people On the other hand, I think what’s really new, and I give credit to the co-chairs of the judiciary committee, they’re soliciting this information, they’re asking people who are directly affected by this, to come forward and explain what it really is. Now some people who are in “lonely” pretty much deserve to be there and need to be there. But I think there are a lot of other people who have been there since long periods of time, beyond what is really necessary. And I think it’s those stories that change the perception of lawmakers. And one last thing, I think more lawmakers in recent years have gone into our correctional facilities and have seen what these cells look like really solve these situations. And I think when you see it, you get an idea of how, if the goal is to correct people, me me an, they call it the Department of Correction for a reason. Then you can see how this kind of defeats the whole purpose. People don’t become better citizens after spending long periods of time in this type of detention.”
mike hydeck: “And the detailed letters that prisoners have before the Judiciary Committee. Because the number of prisons closed in recent years and, as you mentioned earlier, prison populations have decreased so drastically, so is it more likely that in previous years some of these reforms could actually be implemented more quickly, do you think?
Mike Lawlor“Well, I think you have a few factors at work here, don’t you. First, there’s pressure from the legislature. Second, there’s clearly an awareness in the administration from the commissioner of corrections that things have to change. Governor Lamont signed an executive order last year, making some changes. The legislature said, “We want to make this into law so that a future governor can’t just And I think that’s what’s happening. And the good news is that the legislative leaders and the correctional officers, you know, the experts, sat down and worked out a compromise. is what will eventually come forward for a final vote in the Legislature. And I’m very optimistic that Governor Lamont will sign off on this version, because there are a lot of important technicalities that you need to fix. I mean, there’s has people who need to be be isolated for periods of time, either because they pose a risk to other inmates or to staff. There are people who risk being killed themselves, it is true. I mean, there are notorious inmates that I think other inmates would like to kill. And it certainly happened in Connecticut and other states. So, I mean, there are good reasons to keep people away from other inmates. It’s just that you want to limit it to only situations where it’s absolutely necessary, and I think they have an agreement on how to accomplish that.”