An increase in assaults on prison staff in Connecticut has sparked outcry from some correctional union officials. Inmate advocates say mental health support could help.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jaden Edison to discuss his article, “CT’s incarcerated seek say in debate over assaults on prison staff,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Jaden. You covered a special legislative session this fall where the unions representing correction officers were upset that lawmakers declined to take legislative action in response to assaults on prison staff. Is that why you decided to focus on this issue? And what did you find?

JE: It wasn’t so much the special legislative session. It was seeing and reading a lot of the coverage as it pertains to an increase in the assault on prison staff. So I think the press conference that they held a day before the special legislative session earlier this year to address a vacant Supreme Court seat was completely unrelated to the staff assaults and prisons, but it played a role in this story. I think a lot of the union members, as you mentioned, were upset that it wasn’t being taken up after they had already met with the governor and top legislators on this particular issue. And so for me, it was just more of again, just kind of seeing a little bit of the narrative that was present as it pertains to assaults on prisons.

I think a lot of the framing was around the question, can we attribute this increase in assaults on prison staff and violence in general, within prisons, to a law that was passed that mandated, among other things, an increase in out-of-cell time? So for me, that was somewhat of a reporting question, but I think the next reporting question for me was how has the DOC, the Department of Correction, responded to this law, which was passed only a year ago. And so that’s kind of how it started and unfolded from there. But it was certainly, I think the press conference, that was a part of this kind of larger thread that I was seeing as it pertains to the narrative about assaults on staff and prisons.

WSHU: Now, could you talk a little bit more about the Protect Act? This is the law that was passed a couple of years ago, that really went into effect earlier on this year, that would allow more outside of cell time for prisoners?

JE: Absolutely. I think you have to understand, and this was another thing on my reporting journey, is why was the Protect Act necessary? And that’s one of the important questions that I had going into it. And you go back and look at testimony from the United Nations representative years ago, the individual testified that Connecticut’s use of solitary confinement could have amounted to torture. You look at various court rulings, I covered a trial late last year, as it pertains to Richard Reynolds, who was previously on death row until it was abolished, but where the jury found that the DOC had violated his 8th Amendment rights, which prohibit cruel and unusual punishment. And then you look at, again, a string of things. Why was Northern Correctional, the state’s old supermax facility, closed? You have the Yale Law Clinic who had done a lot of research in terms of speaking with incarcerated people who talked about the inhumane and cruel and unusual practices that have been present there.

And so all those reasons bring us to the Protect Act, which from the day it was introduced, and this is, kind of what I gather from my reporting, that it ran into swift opposition to the union, who didn’t want lawmakers and community advocates trying to make laws about prisons. Their feeling was, you don’t know how it works. This is what we do. And so we know what’s feasible, and what’s not. And so the Protect Act had three major components. One that mandated more out-of-cell time. So as of April 2023, it mandates five hours of out-of-cell time for people. And this is in contrast to people who testified about being in their cells 23 hours a day, being subjected to strip searches, as they left their cells, or during visitation, not being able to physically have contact with their families.

So the five hours of out-of-cell time, it also limited the use of solitary confinement, and when the DOC can deploy, and how long they can deploy that. It also established independent oversight of the DOC, which will come soon through the hiring of the correctional ombudsperson. So you had these three major components. And again, you talk to a lot of the advocates, the aforementioned reasons that I pointed out in terms of human rights violations, the testimony from incarcerated people, you know, the federal judge’s ruling that these actions have been cruel and unusual. That was all in the backdrop of why the Protect Act was necessary, particularly in the eyes of people who are incarcerated. And a lot of the advocates and academics who worked on the law now.

WSHU: But the union reps were pushing back on this idea that actually having more time out of cells has led to an increase in assaults on prison staff. What did your research into the story find?

JE: One of the things that was already apparent to me is that, you know, this law goes into full effect, or at least most of the law did, in July 2022. But the full increase in out-of-cell time did not go into effect until earlier this year. And so for me, I know, one of the questions I had was this is a pretty short timeline for this to have this big of an effect. And so that’s when I went to the DOC and asked for the raw numbers from the last five years. Because oftentimes, you see a lot of officials allude to percentage increases, which in certain times can be misleading, because you can go from 100 to 150, that’s a 50% increase, but when you talk about the raw numbers, they may not jump out to you as it would percentage wise.

And what I found was that although in fiscal year 2023, the DOC documented the highest number of staff assaults that had happened over the last five fiscal years. What you saw was that the significant increase, perhaps the most significant year-to-year increase, happened as we came out of the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic from 2020 to 2021. We know the pandemic was notoriously a time of great difficulty for Connecticut prisons and prisons across the country, as it pertains to mental health, as it pertains to sickness and death, and so on and so forth. And so there that was one par, but then you talk to Scott Semple, former DOC Commissioner, to try to get some institutional knowledge on some of these things. And you find, as he put it, there’s an ebb and flow to the numbers.

One thing I’ve been hearing from incarcerated people is that this is a serious mental health issue. We have people who have severe mental health needs who are involved in these particular incidents that are happening, but no one’s talking about it. So I asked the DOC, what numbers do you have on this, and you find that almost 70% of the people involved in the assaults since 2021, had some form of either mild, moderate or serious mental health issues as the DOC put it. So again, once you have those, you realize that the numbers there were much more than just raw numbers, this tells you that there’s a significant need, perhaps not being met within the DOC.

And again, the Protect Act, the intention was always that we would increase out-of-cell time, but it was only a first step. But we will also create an environment that’s more humane for everyone. We have more programming, you know, more activities for people to do. So they’re not just sitting around playing cards, or hanging around with this increase. And so those are all the things I think that are at play with this particular subject matter.

WSHU: Well, also the prison union officials, they pushed back on the fact that they said they don’t have facilities to accommodate keeping prisoners out of their cells for extra hours, because they’ve closed so many facilities in Connecticut. So they have fewer facilities. So they’re kind of frustrated that the resources are not there to make it possible. What did you find when you looked into that?

JE: Well, I think the one thing you have to realize with the prison closures is because Connecticut’s prison population has declined so significantly over the last several years. In the last few years you’ve had two or three prison closures. Those, in part, are attributed to the declining prison population that we’ve seen over the last decade or so. So that was a part of it. But I think when you talk to incarcerated people, one of the things that was super fascinating to me is that I spoke with people primarily who had been serving long sentences, people who have been incarcerated, so a little bit on the older side, who perhaps have more institutional kind of perspective and knowledge of how things work. And you find that there’s almost a desire for more activities, right? These are not people who perhaps are happy with, ‘Oh, I like just being out of the cell and not doing anything.’

One thing I just found so fascinating was this desire to continue to grow as advocates through penmanship. I remember one guy told me through a letter, we don’t even use violence in our particular unit, because we advocate for ourselves through writing. And he was like, so if we have an issue, we’ll write it out. And that’s how we make our voices heard. And so I think there’s also the belief among incarcerated people that some of these, you know, arguments made by union officials are a bit semantic. There’s a belief that the union wasn’t already happy with the Protect act. And so anytime you can put this narrative out here as it pertains to an increase in assault, again, narrative drives policy.

WSHU: You’ve corresponded with quite a few incarcerated people for the story.

JE: Yes. Particularly Cheshire Correctional Institution in Enfield. The people I spoke with were in a unit called the H.O.N.O.R unit, which was created to provide expanded educational opportunities. And these are all people who have been incarcerated for a long time. The incarcerated people actually played a significant role in creating the structure of what the programming was supposed to look like; I saw creative writing, some different activities that I had never heard of before, related to film and arts and things of that nature.

But again, the irony in that is that the folks who we spoke with and also one of the Cheshire correctional officers also, you know, told me this on the record as well, that the unit has really existed in name only thus far. And even that hasn’t lived up to what it was supposed to be in terms of providing the expanded program. So if you talk to Barbara Fair, who is a leading organizer for Stop Solitary Connecticut who was pivotal in getting this law passed, she would describe this as a recipe for disaster. You increase out-of-cell time, you do all these things that are meant to make prison more humane, but you’re not fostering an environment that allows incarcerated people to use that time effectively.

WSHU: So Jaden, where do we go from here? What do you see as far as policy is concerned, what are lawmakers saying about what they’re doing in the near future?

JE: Yeah. So I think the more immediate thing is, when you talk about the third component, as I refer to it, the Protect Act established an independent oversight for Department of Correction. And the expectation is that within the next few weeks, maybe the next week or so, the committee responsible for helping appoint that person will hold a public hearing for three finalists. So that will be getting us closer to this point where Connecticut has kind of established independent oversight, because, again, I think there’s frustration that perhaps we’re relying on narratives from correction officers, or we’re relying on narratives from people who are incarcerated, we’re relying on narratives from academics, you don’t have the kind of independent authority who can go in there and kind of sort through what’s what, and what’s not. So I think that’s the most immediate step that we can expect from the state.

But as far as the legislature, it remains to be seen. I covered last year and one thing I learned right away, again, narrative drives policy. And so I’d be shocked if it wasn’t a talking point, at least come February when the legislature convened, but as far as how lawmakers go about it remains to be seen. You know, I know Senator Gary Winfield, who was the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee and helps oversee the correctional budget for the Appropriations Committee. He’s not necessarily sold on the increasing correctional staff for the sake of doing it, right. It’s like if we’re going to take action, we need concrete evidence that there’s a problem. And this is how we fix it. And it needs to be something that again, lives up to what the spirit of the Protect Act was supposed to be, which was to establish a more humane environment for people who are incarcerated and the correctional staff as well make sure it’s a safe and humane environment for everybody who lives in walks and works within the prisons.

Long Story Short takes you behind the scenes at the home of public policy journalism in Connecticut. Each week WSHU’s Ebong Udoma joins us to rundown the Sunday Feature with our reporters. We also present specials on CT Mirror’s big investigative pieces.