Somers' fight for better prisoner care not your typical GOP issue

When running for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket with Tom Foley in 2014, Heather Somers privately urged the Foley campaign to aggressively exploit a vulnerability of the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Somers wanted to loudly call out the Malloy administration’s policies that allowed inmates more opportunities to earn early release, an approach that did not go well in a few cases when some ex-cons committed serious crimes.

Foley, however, was playing things safe, convinced that if he avoided controversies he would be the new governor because Malloy could not overcome his poor approval ratings. Foley’s campaign did not make the law-and-order play that Somers was sure could have picked up some votes for the Republican ticket in high-crime urban areas.

Foley’s cautious strategy failed and Malloy narrowly won re-election.

It is not without some irony, then, that Senator Somers — elected in the 18th District in 2016 — found herself at a press conference Wednesday criticizing the Malloy administration for failing to adequately protect the health of prisoners and for a lack of transparency on the issue.

“The legislature is now obligated to step in and speak up for those who have suffered from these inhumane conditions. We need to know the full story so we can determine the best course to prevent this tortuous neglect,” said Somers at the Republican-only event.

There is a difference, certainly, between the policies that dictate when a prisoner is released and how they are treated while incarcerated. And Somers, as co-chair of the Public Health Committee, is in the right position to push for answers.

Still, it’s an interesting role reversal. Malloy, who has pushed prison reform and more “second chances” for ex-cons is under attack from a Republican law-and-order candidate concerned about the treatment of prisoners.

Somers, joined at the press conference by Republican Senate leader Len Fasano of North Haven, has a good case.

In a recent special report, The Connecticut Mirror noted that the Office of the Attorney General has, in the past decade, logged more than 1,000 complaints and lawsuits from inmates about the health care they did or didn’t receive. There are numerous pending lawsuits.

A report done for the Department of Correction reviewed 25 cases related to health care problems, including eight prisoner deaths.

After a Feb. 13 incident, in which a female inmate gave birth inside a York Correctional Institution prison cell in Niantic, the department placed two nurses on leave.

Unlike 35 other states, Connecticut has no quality monitoring system to assess the adequacy of prison health care.

The Hartford press conference featured the family of inmate Wayne World, serving time for manslaughter. World raised concerns in 2012 about a rash. Doctors never properly diagnosed or treated it. World recently learned he has advanced stage, life-threatening skin cancer.

In response to the problems, DOC last month ended its long-time relationship with UConn Health to provide care and moved services in-house.

Somers and Fasano complain the legislature remains uninformed about the details and root causes of the problem and have demanded a public hearing on the prison medical care system.

And they want to see the $63,000 consultant study that examined the 25 cases and eight deaths. The Malloy administration has refused to provide access, citing attorney-client privilege and contending its release would undermine the DOC’s legal strategy. The Freedom of Information Commission backed the DOC’s refusal to release it.

The department has also held up the release of a second consultant study that cost $600,000.

While this is not your typical Republican issue, Somers needs to keep pushing. The legislature should perform its oversight duty. The Democrats don’t appear eager to do so.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.



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