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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    More correctional officers being assaulted by inmates due to 2022 law, union says

    The lobby entrance to the Raymond L. Corrigan building, part of the Corrigan Correctional Center, can be seen on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. The banner on the left reads “To the Dedicated Men and Women of the Connecticut Department of Correction. For your selfless service during these unprecedented times. Thank you.” (Photo by Daniel Drainville/The Day)
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    Montville ― Behind the towering brick walls and barbed wire fences of the maximum-security Corrigan Correctional Center, a recent state law has created a dangerous situation for officers and inmates, according to the union that represents state correction officers.

    Stephen Wales, vice president of AFSCME Local 1565, said correction officers at Corrigan and three other state prisons are having trouble managing high-risk prisoners, including gang members, who are benefiting from a new law enacted in 2022 that provides inmates with more recreation time.

    The law, colloquially referred to as the PROTECT Act, set a new standard for the amount of time inmates spend outside their cells. The first version, SB 1059, had been vetoed by Gov. Ned Lamont in June 2021.

    When the governor signed off on the second version in 2022, it was with the full support of Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros, who said, “I believe this bill strikes the right balance between maintaining a safe and secure environment for everyone within the Department of Correction’s facilities, while also working towards the objective of minimizing the effects of long-term impact of incarceration.”

    The law, which went into effect in July 2022, provides inmates of all designations, whether they be general population or restricted status inmates, the right to at least four hours out of their cells.

    According to Chief Union Steward Ken Wright, Quiros and legislators who had jumped on board could not have foreseen how the law, combined with a lack of manpower to oversee the inmates while they are out of their cells, would create the conditions for an increase in assaults by high-risk inmates.

    Those assaults, Wright said, have led to prison-wide lockdowns while the increased amount of time out of their cells removed any incentive for high-risk inmates to take measures to have that designation removed so they could reintegrate into the general population and have more out-of-cell time.

    “We didn’t realize how serious (the law) was until the incidents. It’s not just one month or one week, this is just constant right now,” he said about the assaults.

    Four charged with assault at Corrigan last week

    Four inmates were charged last week with assaulting correction officers at Corrigan, according to state police reports. In one of the incidents, two members of the Bloods street gang attempted to start a riot, union officials said.

    One of the inmates involved in that incident had previously stabbed another inmate with a homemade weapon in August and took an employee hostage, according to Wright.

    Between the new law and a lack of manpower, correction officers have not had time to do proper cell searches, Wright said.

    “When you have inmates out for recreation for six-plus hours out of an eight-hour shift, you don’t have time to do that,” he said, adding that he has “never seen so many weapons as we have in this building.”

    During a Nov. 8 incident, inmate Anthony Rutherford, who is serving an 80-year sentence for killing two people, took a shampoo bottle full of feces and urine and sprayed it in the face of a corrections officer, getting it into his mouth and eyes.

    Another inmate assaulted a nurse while entering the facility on Nov. 9, according to state police, and was charged with assault on a public safety officer.

    At 10:39 p.m. that day, state police said they received a report of a Corrigan inmate, later identified as Ariel Esparra, 35, striking a nurse on the shoulder.

    Esparra had been admitted to Corrigan on Nov. 9 for first-degree violation of probation. He had previously been convicted of soliciting a sexual act and third-degree assault, according to judicial records.

    Wright said that the number of staff assaults for fiscal year 2022 was the same as it was in 2012. But in 2012, Connecticut’s prisons had half the amount of inmates as they do now, he added.

    At Corrigan, which houses about 900 male prisoners, staff are now supervising double the number of inmates during recreation time, Wright said.

    “A facility like Corrigan is not set up for that,” he said. “We have too many to control. Our guys are going to get seriously, seriously hurt.”

    Restricted-status inmates

    Wright said the bill was designed for the majority of inmates who are not on restricted status.

    He said the assaults, though, are primarily coming from inmates who are part of the gang members separated from the general population because they are identified as gang members or otherwise deemed as higher risks.

    The two inmates responsible for Sunday’s riot were both on restricted status as a result of their gang affiliations. Still, they receive the same amount of out-of-cell time as inmates within the general population, which includes anyone awaiting trial for a range of offenses to those convicted of crimes such as murder and manslaughter.

    Restricted-status inmates only make up about 3% of the prison population in Connecticut. The goal of the 2022 law was primarily to give more out-of-cell time to members of the general population, but has actually accomplished the opposite, Wright said.

    “Every other inmate in the jail had to be controlled to deal with this situation on Sunday,” Wright said, referring to the attempted riot. “And they lost an hour of out-of-cell time.”

    In order to accommodate the increased out-of-cell time, he said Corrigan correction officers are having to let out twice the number of restricted-status inmates as they would have prior to the law.

    That’s what’s leading to the higher propensity of incidents, Wright said, and leading to instances where corrections officers are dealing with 10- or 15-man brawls.

    “In our general population unit, 99% of the time it’s a one-on-one fight,” he said. “But because of the way the gangs work, they have their bylaws or their rules they have to go by. And a lot of them have these rules that if one person gets involved, then fellow gang members have to get involved.”

    “And that’s creating a danger not just for us, but for them.”

    Wright said the restricted-status inmates already have access to many of the same privileges as inmates in the general population, including tablets and multiple phone calls a day.

    “The whole point of the program is to denounce your gang affiliation, or SRG (security risk group) affiliation, and to prepare them to go back to the real world,” Wright said. “But now, everything’s changed so much that there is almost no reason to progress.”

    Addressing the problem

    Wright said that in order to address the problem with the assaults, the union would like to see a “slight peel back” of out-of-cell time for inmates who are on a restricted status. Currently, he said, there is no incentive for restricted-status inmates to work on becoming a member of the general population.

    For inmates who are part of gangs, this would mean going through steps to renounce their membership and prepare themselves to reenter the real world, Wright said.

    Department of Correction spokeswoman Ashley McCarthy said in a statement Tuesday that Quiros has made it clear that staff safety is a top priority and that he has zero tolerance for those who make the “misguided decision” to assault a Department of Correction staff member.

    “Furthermore, anyone who does assault a staff member will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” the statement said. “The agency’s leadership, along with union representatives, are continuing to work together to revise and develop new policies in order to reduce the chances for any future assaults on staff.”

    Wright said Quiros has submitted a proposal to the state Office of Policy and Management for funding 15 additional correction officer posts between the maximum security facilities that house restricted-status inmates: Corrigan, MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, Cheshire Correctional Institution and Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown.

    The union is still waiting to hear whether the proposal will be approved or denied, he added. The DOC spokeswoman would not comment on the proposal.

    d.drainville@theday.com

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