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New rules making CT prisons unsafe for corrections officers, union says

FILE, 2020: A gate at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center where multiple inmates and one staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. (Ryan Caron King/Connecticut Public)
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
The Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center is pictured in 2020. The state later closed the Radgowski portion of the facility in October 2021.

The union representing prison employees says recent assaults on inmates and staff were the result of a law that curtails the use of solitary confinement and provides minimum recreation time for prisoners.

State prison officials are reviewing their safety protocols after a series of attacks on inmates and corrections officers in recent weeks.

The union representing prison employees blames the increasing violence on a law that curtails the use of solitary confinement and provides minimum recreation time for prisoners.

The law, passed in 2022, mandates that most prisoners must spend at least five hours outside of their cells each day. It also caps the number of days prisoners can spend in isolation.

Michael Vargo, president of AFSCME Local 1565, a union for prison employees, said those changes are creating unsafe conditions inside correctional facilities.

“The politicians have really taken the tools away from us," Vargo said, referring to limits on the use of solitary confinement. "You know, it's making the facilities extremely unsafe for staff as well as the inmate population."

The union spoke out after it says a gang fight occurred at Corrigan Correctional Institution in Montville last week. It says three guards were also attacked in a pair of other incidents.

The Connecticut Department of Correction declined a request to comment on the circumstances.

The union is now calling on the state to hire more corrections officers. Ken Wright, the union’s chief steward for Corrigan Correctional Institution, said the requirement to provide more recreation time means as many as 52 people are now allowed out of their cells at the same time at Corrigan, up from a previous maximum of 24.

The union also pointed to numbers it said show an increase in assaults after the changes took effect.

According to the union, agency data shows there were 330 inmate-on-inmate assaults in Connecticut prisons during the most recent fiscal year that ended in June 2023, compared to 233 assaults in the fiscal year that ended in June 2021.

There were 359 assaults during a comparable one-year period from 2015-16, and 300 in the period from 2016 to 2017, Department of Correction data shows.

State Rep. Steve Stafstrom, House chairperson of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that the work corrections officers do is valuable to everyone in correctional facilities, but these assaults should not unfairly be connected with the legislation limiting solitary confinement.

The bill was aimed at creating a safer correctional environment for everyone, he said, and was a product of negotiation and collaboration.

Barbara Fair is a long-time social justice advocate who works with the group Stop Solitary CT. She says the union has long pushed back against limiting the time prisoners spend in isolation. She says that approach is misguided.

"They're upset because they're saying that, you know, the law changed, but it didn't change anything for them," Fair said. "Because the [corrections officers] want to run the prisons the way they want to run them. And nobody's holding them accountable."

Fair said the union has rallied against the legislation that is limiting solitary confinement and expanding recreation time since it was first introduced.

“This is a new strategy that, you know, to report on every little thing that goes on as though there's some kind of uprising going on when there really isn't,” she said.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s office said the state will hire an independent criminal justice group to assess prison programs.

Ashad Hajela is CT Public's Tow Fellow for Race, Youth and Justice with Connecticut Public's Accountability Project. He can be reached at ahajela@ctpublic.org.

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