Are Connecticut’s new prison rules leading to more assaults?
Over the past few months, prison employee union leaders have spoken out about an uptick in assaults in Connecticut’s correctional facilities. They contend that new laws mandating minimum out-of-cell time, and limiting time in isolation, contribute to making prisons more dangerous.
Assaults on staff and incarcerated people have indeed increased. But are the state’s new policies to blame?
State law didn’t specify minimum out-of-cell time until 2021. Lawmakers passed a bill that year requiring a minimum of six and a half hours. Gov. Ned Lamont vetoed the bill, and instead issued an executive order mandating a minimum of two hours.
That figure now stands at five hours per day, following passage of a 2022 law that instituted a variety of additional reforms. It also limited how long, and how frequently, incarcerated people can be segregated from the rest of the prison population.
Mike Vargo, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1565, which represents prison workers, said it’s hard in some facilities to abide by the new rules. He pointed to physical limitations of prison buildings, and constraints on the type of disciplinary measures guards can use.
“Now, with this new law, an inmate could assault a staff member and do four or five days in (segregation), but in the past, they would do two or three weeks in (segregation),” he said.
An analysis by The Accountability Project found inmate-on-inmate assaults have increased over the last couple of years. But that’s after dropping to recent lows during the COVID-19 pandemic. That number is now back to pre-pandemic levels.
J. Wells, a staff representative for the union, said it’s also important to consider that the prison population is now significantly lower than in past years. The number of inmate-on-inmate assaults per incarcerated person was higher during the past budget year than at any point previously, he said.
Assaults on staff are also up, reaching roughly the same level as 10 years ago, when the prison population was significantly higher. However, that number was already rising before the state started mandating minimum time outside a prison cell.
Incarcerated people assaulted prison staff 196 times during the last budget year, which ended in July 2023, according to data provided by the state Department of Correction. That’s up from a low-point of 100 assaults on staff three years earlier.
Collin Provost, president of AFSCME Local 391, another union representing prison employees, said corrections officers have been losing ways to punish incarcerated people beyond just segregating them, such as restricting recreation time inside a prison unit.
“We were allowed to give them sanctions that would remove phone calls for up to five or six days. We were able to hold their commissary if they were not falling in line and doing what they're supposed to do in-unit,” he said.
Dan Canon, an assistant professor of law at the University of Louisville who has studied organizing at prisons, said the union’s reaction to the legislation is unusual.
“I’ve never seen a union complain that because of a change in legislation that makes conditions less harsh for incarcerated people, that that is the root of the problem,” he said. “I think the tack that they’re taking here is interesting, and when I say interesting, I mean out of step with human rights norms.”
The Department of Correction is now hiring an independent criminal justice consulting group to assess whether it’s meeting safety standards.
Union officials say part of the problem is that state prison infrastructure isn’t set up to handle the number of inmates who are outside their cells at once. Connecticut also incarcerates fewer low-level offenders today than in the past. Union leaders argue that as a result, those who remain behind bars today are more prone to violence.
A potential solution, they say, is to hire more officers. The DOC employs fewer staff members in its custody unit today than in the recent past. That drop followed a decline in the prison population since 2008.
But the number of prison guards shrank more slowly than the number of incarcerated people. When the prison population was at its peak, there was one custody staff member for roughly every three incarcerated people. Today, there’s one custody staff member for about every two incarcerated people.
Unions that represent prison employees are set to begin renegotiating their wages in January 2024, according to a communications assistant for AFSCME Council 4.
Prison reform advocates in Connecticut have long pushed to provide more recreation time for incarcerated people. Christina Quaranta, executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance, said now that the state has established minimum standards, it’s important to focus on how time outside a cell is structured.
“Now we have the issue of enforcing it and making sure they are doing it, and doing it in a productive way,” she said, “so that when people have out-of-cell time, it’s not in the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning, and they are actually doing something productive and skill-building.”
Scott Mathers, an assistant professor of criminal justice at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, has studied progressive prison policy and said if recreation time isn’t structured, it could also be harmful.
“When you make that switch where people have more freedom of choice, more yard time, you have to increase structured activity,” he said. “If they are competitive sports, that can be conflict-based, so it might aggravate problems.”