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Commissioner Cook Talks About Changing Times At Connecticut’s Prisons

Connecticut Department of Correction
Cook and Gov. Lamont speak with members in the T.R.U.E. Unit last winter.

Much of the criminal justice system has changed over the three decades that Rollin Cook has worked in prisons. At the beginning of his career, the main job of correction officers was to warehouse inmates – make sure the jails and prisons were secure, that the prisoners made it to their court hearings, that the gates opened and closed.

“They didn’t hire me because I could think. They didn’t hire me because I was empathetic. They didn’t hire me because I was a problem-solver,” Cook recalled of his first job in the field, in his home state, Utah. “They hired me because I had athletic ability, and I had size. That’s the reality of it.”

That isn’t why Gov. Ned Lamont chose Cook to be the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Correction, however. It was because Cook is a proponent of criminal justice reform in Utah, where he was prison commissioner.

The philosophical underpinning of corrections has shifted over the years, from punishment to rehabilitation, and Cook believes prison staff have a crucial role to play in the changing times. Correction officers have the chance to improve the lives of people incarcerated in Connecticut’s prisons, he said, not just move them from one place to another, like the old days.

“We have the opportunity to help people who have not had many of the same privileges that we had,” Cook said. “We don’t get to choose who we’re born into, the family. Oftentimes we can help them now, whether it’s through education, helping them get a job, teaching them how to do resumes, teaching them how to do interviews.”

Cook suspects many of the old school prison guards and staff are grateful for the changes to their job responsibilities. Their work used to be monotonous. Now, they help connect people to education, treatment and housing. They try to give them tools to lead successful lives once they’re out of prison.

“You suddenly see value in providing opportunities to other people, where previously it was making sure they go to bed at a certain time, making sure they went to court,” Cook said. “It’s just a different environment.”

In a recent interview with CT Mirror, Cook explained his vision for the state’s prisons, and his role in advancing criminal justice reform in Connecticut.

Q: How do you plan on continuing Connecticut’s criminal justice reforms championed by former Gov. Dannell Malloy and your predecessor, Scott Semple?

A: We’ve tried to really make a concerted effort to reach out to the communities, and to the advocates, to the incarcerated, to the previously incarcerated, and really begun to push it to a new level. To me, that’s one of the reasons why they brought me in. There’s been a ton of talk, and we’ve done some reform here in Connecticut, but there’s still a lot of things to do. Our plan is to really focus around reentry.

We’ve been working hard. In fact we’re getting to the point where we have so much information, we have so many things and so many projects, that we’re having to get them in line and sort of prioritize them. We’ll be focusing a lot on things like employment, housing, family reunification, treatment, all that stuff that is so important to someone being a success, and, again, engaging the advocates in the community, make them a big part of it. They’ve been asking for it, so here it comes. It’s coming.

Q: Cutting down on restrictive housing and making sure inmates spend less time in their cells was a priority of yours in Utah. Is that also one of your goals in Connecticut, and what challenges does implementing that pose?

A: It is. It continues to be a priority, and we continue to work on it. There’s a lot of challenges. It requires sort of a complete change of mindset. Corrections has changed so much in the last five years, and a lot in the last ten. But it’s just been such a steep change regarding restricted housing, regarding corrections reform. It’s extremely challenging for employees who … have been trained for years in one sort of set of thinking, and now are having to make those types of changes.

Also, the architecture of many of the buildings that we manage our incarcerated populations in, many of them are old. Some of the newer ones are not the same model that we would want to do programming and rehabilitation, all that kind of stuff.

Trying to also prepare those who are incarcerated — this is something people don’t think about. You’ve had someone who’s been in restricted housing for longer periods of time, or had a different way of being managed, they’re human beings. And so you suddenly take them out of that environment, plug them into a general population, and they start to have challenges. So, we have to make sure when we move those folks, we’re stepping them down, that we’re doing solid mental health evaluations and all those kind of things. The list is off the charts as far as how many challenges [there are], but we know it’s our responsibility, and we know it’s the right thing to do. But it takes time.

Q: How did you come to embrace criminal justice reform? Was it something you developed over your career, or something you embraced as the culture has shifted?

A: I would say this is something that comes from the way that you’re brought up, from the people that you’re around as you grow up and you’re out in the community, whether it was through your church and through your neighborhood. As you know, I come from Utah. Another thing I say a lot is, ‘I’m a Baptist, born and raised in Utah, married to a Catholic.’ And if you see that, you can see a lot of my thoughts are based around religion and faith-based ideas. I’m not ashamed of that. For me, that’s what makes me want to help these people. I understand that many of the things I’m very fortunate to have had – mentors, coaches, other parents that influenced my life. To me, that’s where it comes from: all those people that went out of their way to make me feel valued, to give me opportunities to work, to mentor me, tell me I was wrong, ’cause I wasn’t always right. I think that’s where it comes from.

Q: What challenges are there in Connecticut that weren’t as formidable in Utah?

A: One of the big challenges that we face is health services. We faced that in Utah, as well, but I think walking in here it wasn’t something I knew the magnitude of, and we’ve spent a great deal of time since I got here. As we develop our strategic plan … health services is going to be something we’re constantly addressing. Since I’ve been here, it literally was immediately in my face. Since the first week we had to make some changes, but we’ve hired a chief medical officer, hired a lot of mid-level managers within the health services unit, to be able to help provide that leadership. We’re doing lots of hiring and recruiting, and enhancing our retention. We’re doing lots of things to change how we provide health services that maybe in the past would not have occurred.

Everybody at this point now who has a major issue is sent out for care. We want to get to the point though where we have our group of doctors … a panel that can decide, ‘OK, what’s gonna be the best treatment for this person?’ Right now we’re sending everyone out, and before they weren’t sending hardly anyone out. So, we’re enhancing the care, we’re looking at changes to our pharmacy, changes in adding things such as telemedicine, enhancing some specialists in the community. So a great deal of effort has gone into the health services side. But many of the challenges here in Connecticut are the same challenges that are faced in Utah — housing, finding employment, all those different things about reentry, restrictive housing.

Q: The number of incarcerated people in Connecticut is historically low compared to years past. Do you foresee more drops in the prison population?

A: It’s tough to tell, but that’s really the goal. We want to make sure that we’re incarcerating the right people  for the right crimes in the right situation for the right amount of time. And I think that’s one thing where Connecticut is well ahead. We were at almost 20,000 [inmates] about eight years ago, and now we’re all the way down to 12,900. So you’ve seen that Connecticut has done a really good job of moving the people who probably didn’t need to be incarcerated — who could be better served in the community, under parole and community services — out.

Now, it’s a more challenging population [still in prison.] We have the ones that maybe have higher levels of charges [and] more difficult mental health challenges, so it’s important though that we continue to move down that road of trying to reduce the population. It’s extremely expensive. But [we also need to make] sure also that we maintain safety and security not only inside our facilities, but in our community. So it’s a balancing act of public safety and making sure we’re getting the right people out at the right time.

Q: Are there plans to close any prisons?

A: There’s nothing that’s been talked about in terms of closing facilities. If the population continues to go down, the way that we typically look at it is, we try to look at it by units. It’s important to understand we need to have the ability to move different levels of inmates to different locations, to be able to provide the right levels of programming and education and vocational training, making sure we’re also not mixing those populations from maximum to minimum [security levels]. Although things have changed a great deal since the ’80s, there’s still a great deal of value in the classification of people into security levels that allows them to be able to work together or accomplish things. We still have a responsibility to provide training and programming to all those different levels, but when you mix them, obviously, sometimes they can take advantage of each other and so on and so forth. So, there’s value for us in terms of being able to manage it by closing different units. The day may come when we look at another facility being closed, but as of today we really look at it as, ‘What units can we close as our population decreases?’

Q: One popular bill last legislative session would have made phone calls free for prison inmates. It didn’t pass. Might DOC support the measure next session, since it aligns with one of your goals to foster relationships between inmates and their families?

A: We’ll probably remain neutral when it comes to that particular case. But do I think that something’s being worked on? Yes, and I think that’s up to the legislators to figure out, but based on our discussions I do believe that they’re looking at ways that they can offset those costs. What I think a lot of people don’t understand is a lot of that money doesn’t go to the Department of Correction… we are about family reunification. When that happens [and the bill is signed into law,] obviously that opens up a whole lot of time, opens up a whole lot more people wanting to get on the phones.

But family reunification isn’t just about phone calls. It’s about enhancing the visiting piece. It’s about enhancing interactions and encouraging, for example, children working with their fathers, reading books and building those relationships. There’s a lot of other programming pieces that go along with that, not just a phone call. As someone who has a family in Utah, I spend a lot of time on the phone. But there’s nothing like that time actually being with somebody that makes a real difference in how you feel.

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