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News

State To Close Only 'Supermax' Prison, Northern Correctional Institution

Northern-Correctional-Institution-1.jpg
Cloe Poisson
/
CT Mirror
Northern Correctional Institution in Somers

Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s controversial “supermax” prison located in Somers, will close by July 1, the Department of Correction announced to its staff on Monday.

The closure is the first since Enfield Correctional Institution was shuttered on Jan. 23, 2018. There are 5,000 fewer people in state correctional facilities since then. The most precipitous decline has been since the onset of the pandemic; there are 3,377 fewer people in prison or jail today than on March 1.

“I have been transparent about my intentions to close facilities, ever since [Gov. Ned] Lamont announced that I was his choice to be the next commissioner,” Commissioner Designate Angel Quiros told DOC employees in a memo Monday. “The decision to close Northern can be largely attributed to the significant drop in the incarcerated population, as well as my obligation to the taxpayers of Connecticut to identify cost savings measures. The operational costs associated with Northern Correctional exceed most other locations, and the overall census has not surpassed one hundred inmates in the last six months.”

Closing the Somers prison will save the state approximately $12.6 million in annual operating costs. At his COVID-19 media briefing Monday afternoon, Lamont said the savings will go toward closing Connecticut’s deficit.

“Look, I’m gonna make sure the T.R.U.E. unit at Cheshire and other rehabilitative services are there,” Lamont said. “But this money is going to go to fix our deficit.”

In a statement, Lamont said prison admissions have declined significantly over the past 10 years. The incarcerated population is the lowest it has been in 32 years.

“This is even as violent, high-risk inmates are serving more of their original sentences than ever before,” Lamont said. “Spending millions of dollars annually to operate facilities for a population that continues to get smaller and smaller is not a good use of resources, especially as we work to reduce the cost structure of state government.”

Northern was opened in 1995, when the state’s prison population was much greater and officials were having a hard time managing behavioral infractions occurring throughout the prison system.

Advocates have called for its closure for years, citing its declining population and status as a relic of a bygone tough-on-crime era. There were only 55 people incarcerated at Northern as of Feb. 1, 40 of whom were Black and 11 of whom were Hispanic. The facility was built to hold at least 500 prisoners.

“Northern is a monument to cruelty and systemic racism. In sum, it is a symbol of everything that is wrong with incarceration,” said David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “It is critical that the state close Northern in a way that ensures it will never be opened again, and that the money saved from its closure goes toward programs and services to help people most harmed by mass incarceration.”

Northern was the subject of a lawsuit filed last week aimed at preventing prisoners with mental illnesses from being sent there. The lawsuit alleges inmates with mental illnesses were shackled and isolated in cold concrete cells, forced to eat food off the floor, for exhibiting behavior consistent with psychiatric symptoms — symptoms exacerbated by the loneliness and isolation that is a function of life at Northern. One man was given a disciplinary ticket for attempting suicide. Another violated DOC policy by putting his hand through the trap of his cell door, desperate for human interaction.

In a previous interview, Quiros, who served as warden at Northern from 2009 to 2011, said the prison had “served its purpose. With the criminal justice reform that’s going on, the agency will have to take a look at what additional changes we need to make, as far as the programs that are housed at Northern, and then we’re still keeping staff safety, and offender safety, in mind.”

Quiros said during his confirmation hearing that he anticipated closing two correctional facilities due to declining prison and jail populations during the pandemic. Northern is the first; he said that the only facilities not on the table for closure were the city jails — located in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven — and York Correctional Institution, the state’s sole prison for women.

Approximately 175 corrections staff work at Northern. They will not be laid off as a result of the closure. The DOC will work with the employees and their unions to send them to other correctional facilities, helping reduce overtime expenses and mitigate the need to hire new staff to take the place of retirees.

At least one corrections union was displeased with the news. AFSCME Local 391 President Collin Provost said in a statement that, “Front-line corrections staff are concerned that closing state prisons will prove to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.  Shoehorning inmates into other facilities will undermine safety and security in the prisons and create more difficult conditions for offenders and staff. We’re concerned that closing Northern will cause overcrowding, lead to more positive test results and limit the Agency’s ability to quarantine. The State and the DOC should think about repurposing Northern instead of shuttering it.”

In his internal memo, Quiros pledged that the “challenging populations” at Northern will be safely transferred to other correctional facilities.

“These populations have been managed at other locations in years past, and I am confident we can do so now,” Quiros told DOC employees. “As always, safety and security will remain a top priority as we navigate through this process.”

CT Mirror reporter Dave Altimari contributed to this story.

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