ACLU, commissioner seek to put prison reforms into law

Some correctional officials uneasy about push to make changes permanent

By Susan Haigh
Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Civil libertarians and the Connecticut Department of Correction commissioner are working together to put into state law changes made in recent years to greatly reduce the number of inmates in administrative segregation, commonly known as solitary confinement.

Connecticut’s American Civil Liberties chapter and Commissioner Scott Semple said they want to ensure such policies remain in place for future administrations, such as a cap on the number of days inmates are placed in administrative segregation and restrictions on such housing for inmates with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

“We’re very close to having what we believe to be a bill that we can all agree with,” Semple told The Associated Press last week. “It would be appropriate to codify what’s been accomplished, so as the agency moves forward, these things will be in place.”
The new legislative session begins Jan. 4.

Some correctional officers, however, are uneasy about this push to potentially make the changes to administrative segregation permanent.

“We have very limited resources inside of a facility to manage the behavior of inmates and any time those limited resources that we already have get reduced or taken away, it creates an unsafe environment for us,” said Rudy Demiraj, a correction officer at the Cheshire Correctional Institution and president of AFSCME Local 387. He said administrative segregation, introduced in the 1990s, was an effective tool to regain control of the prisons when there was an uptick in gang activity and staff assaults.
“It seems now we have individuals and outside interests, ACLU being definitely one of them, who want to do away with the same tools that were instrumental in us being in control of the prisons,” he said. “I’m concerned that history could now repeat itself and we’re doomed to see that again.”

As of Wednesday, there were 33 inmates on administrative segregation status out of a total statewide incarcerated population of 14,597 prisoners. It marks a major decline from more than a decade ago, when there were 244 inmates in administrative segregation as of January 2003.

The state’s push to reduce those numbers has coincided with growing national concern about the prolonged isolation of inmates.

In Connecticut, prison officials have created a tiered system. The first step provides a “cooling off” period by keeping the inmate isolated for a limited period at Northern Correctional Institution in Somers. Afterward, the inmate moves on to tiers two and three at Cheshire, where there’s a focus on his needs, such as anger management. Privileges increase during that time, creating an incentive for the inmate to behave.

“In general, it’s counterproductive to maintain someone in an isolated environment for extended periods of time,” said Semple, who contends the changes made to administrative segregation, coupled with another program that encourages good behavior by allowing inmates to earn reduced sentences, has led to safer prisons for both staff and inmates because inmates now have more to lose if they act out.

Collin Provost, a correctional officer at Northern and president of AFSCME Local 391, said he’s seen more serious assaults on staff over the past 18 months at various prisons. He blames the reforms that have taken place.

“When we take these little tools away, sometimes they take advantage of it,” he said, referring to inmates. “And if we put it into law, it’s even harder for the administration then afterward to do what they think needs to be done for everybody’s safety.”