New Connecticut correction commissioner on the move in and out of prisons

Commissioner of the state Department of Correction Scott Semple speaks to an inmate in a GED class as he tours the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in East Lyme Wednesday, April 1, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Commissioner of the state Department of Correction Scott Semple speaks to an inmate in a GED class as he tours the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in East Lyme Wednesday, April 1, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple was on the move inside the Garner Correctional Institution on a recent Tuesday, ducking into every office and inspecting each inmate housing unit from end to end.

Members of Semple's executive team hustled to match the long stride of the commissioner as he covered about 5 miles of concrete during his quarterly tour of the high-security prison in Newtown, which houses the state's most mentally ill prisoners.

"Semple!" squealed a prisoner who knew him from his days as Garner's warden. "I've seen you on the news!"

About a week later, he toured the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in Niantic, the state's only women's prison, with an eye toward duplicating some of its successful programs in the men's prisons.

Semple said he takes a "boots on the ground" approach to management, visiting the prisons frequently, sometimes alone and unannounced, to get "the vibe" of the facilities. He allowed The Day to accompany him on his tours in Garner and York. 

The new leader of the state's largest agency is comfortable inside its correctional facilities, having started his career as a front line correction officer in 1988. He worked at almost every level of the DOC before Gov. Dannel P. Malloy nominated him to be commissioner in January. He is politically savvy, having served as the agency's legislative liaison for three years. He is adept at handling the press, having done a tour as DOC's public information officer.

Semple is in charge of about 16,000 prisoners, 6,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $711 million. During the next four years, he'll have to balance the traditional challenges of prison oversight — keeping inmates and staff safe in a humane environment — with transforming DOC into a more rehabilitative agency that has fewer prisoners and more community supervision of offenders. He is a key player in implementing Malloy's Second Chance Society initiative.

"When Gov. Malloy asked me to be commissioner, he told me there are entirely too many people incarcerated, but there are some people who absolutely belong here," Semple said during an April 1 interview at York.

He candidly answered questions about contraband in the prisons and about staff corruption, saying he and his team would tolerate neither. While many states have problems with prohibited cellphones finding their way inside facilities, that hasn't happened in Connecticut, Semple said. The drug Suboxone, used to treat opiate addicts, is the biggest problem recently, he said.

Asked about staff members accused of having illegal sexual relationships with female inmates at York, Semple said he would "fire them on the spot" if he had enough evidence.

Three correction officers were assigned to another facility last fall after an inmate said she had had sex with them. State police investigated and two have been arrested.

"You're in a position of power," he said. "You have a lot of authority."

'A great role model'

Close associates say Semple, 52, of Watertown, was made for the job, that he is a natural leader with a gift for relating to people at all levels.

Retired DOC Major Lenny Rubbo of Waterbury said he could tell Semple had potential as soon as he started his first job at the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

"He was very energetic and eager to learn," Rubbo said. "He had the perfect demeanor and personality for the job. He interacted well with the inmates and the staff. I said, 'If you work hard and do the right things, some day you are going to move up the ranks.' I said, 'You are going to be warden.' He exceeded that."

Semple's rise to the commissioner's office coincided with a life-altering personal tragedy. His only child, 15-year-old Matthew Semple, died on Jan. 1 of cancer. His tour of Garner, where he worked for eight years as deputy warden and warden, was bittersweet, since staff and inmates greeted him with both congratulations and condolences. 

Malloy named Semple, then a deputy commissioner, as acting commissioner in August, after his predecessor, James Dzurenda, left to oversee New York City's prisons. Because of his son's illness, Semple said, he hesitated to commit, but his son and his wife, Christa, encouraged him to take the job.

"I can't tell you how proud of him I am," said Theresa Lantz, who served as the state's Commissioner of Corrections from 2003 to 2009 and is a mentor to Semple. "He's a great role model for what I call resilience. In our lives, tragic things happen, but we need to carry on and maintain our road. He wants to do some great things in the agency. He wants to make a difference. He wants the public to be safe."

Lawmakers praised Semple's breadth of experience during a hearing in February and quickly confirmed him. The commissioner's position pays $167,500 a year plus benefits. 

Expanding programs

Inside Garner's housing units, where the heavy steel doors are trimmed with garish hues of paint and uniformed staff in control booths can see into every corner, Semple looked inmates in the eye and shook their hands while answering questions about visiting lists, discharge plans and recreation programs. 

He calmly acknowledged, and then ignored, prisoners who yelled nonstop from their shower stalls in the restrictive housing unit. If he allows the "squeaky wheel to get the grease," that will happen on every visit, Semple said. He stopped to greet nurses and social workers who work side by side with correctional staff in the mental health units. Semple helped turn the facility into a model for incarceration of the mentally ill. He said he has "a passion" for the issue.

He lingered for a few minutes in the library, where, under the guidance of an animated volunteer, some of the facility's well-behaved inmates were rehearsing a play one of them had written. Semple had authorized the incentive-based program when he was warden. He asked the aspiring thespians for the next performance date to see whether he could fit it into his schedule.

The tour complete, Semple reviewed quarterly statistics with the warden, Henry Falcone, and the regional management team. He left the facility knowing how many inmates were designated as gang members, how many refused medication or threw fluids at staff, the number of times staff used force on inmates, the number of reported assaults, the racial makeup of the population and when the facility had last been "shaken down" — searched for contraband.

With the last of the winter's snow still covering the recreation yards, Semple told Falcone to get prisoners outside as soon as possible, having picked up on a level of anxiety from prisoners in the general population who have been confined inside for months.

The vast majority of prisoners are released back into society, and Semple said their success relies upon offenders becoming "accountable to themselves." 

Crime victims and advocates have criticized the agency's Risk Reduction Earned Credit policy, which allows inmates to get as many as five days a month off their sentences by behaving and participating in rehabilitative programs. The Malloy administration says the program has reduced recidivism and improved safety and morale within the prisons.

"I'm attracted to what works," Semple said. "Things that don't work, I don't have time to let them stick around. If we get numbers that indicate our strategies aren't working, we'll get rid of them."

Semple is revamping the RREC program so that inmates classified as more dangerous will get less time off but will have the chance to work their way into lower-risk categories. He said he is troubled by long waiting lists for programs, but it's something that can be fixed without additional funding. Employees who now "push a lot of papers," such as correctional counselors, could become facilitators, Semple said, and he has told supervisors and managers that they, too, would be facilitating programs.

"I want them to take the lead, lead by example," he said.

 'Agree to disagree'

Semple, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, said that after college he was working as a permanent substitute teacher in Waterbury and had a lot of student loan debt when a friend suggested he apply to the Department of Correction. He did, and he never left. But his love of education endured, and he often talks to staff about changing the lives of offenders through "passionate facilitation."

"I always use the analogy that I don't remember too much of what I learned in fifth grade, but I remember Mr. Mobilia, and he influenced me in many ways, in his ethics and in his words," Semple said at his confirmation hearing. "And when I talk about passionate facilitation, that's what we need to do."

Semple said he is building on the agency's accomplishments over the last two decades.

He is transforming a portion of the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in Enfield into a 600-bed Re-Integration Unit to help prepare inmates for release. The concept of reintegration has been around since the '70s, he said, but not formally. Under the Second Chance Society initiative, Semple said, some DOC staff likely would be reassigned to positions outside prison gates, but the need to lock up a segment of the population will remain.

At the women's prison, Semple spoke with staff in York's intensive drug treatment program about helping their counterparts at Willard-Cybulski establish a therapeutic environment using peer mentors.

"We have limited resources," he said later. "We have to think out of the box."

Announcing "Male on the tier!!" as he strode down York's hallways, Semple walked through the mental health unit for patients with acute psychiatric issues and spoke with correctional and medical staff. A transsexual teenager who came to be known as "Jane Doe" had been housed in segregation there last year before being moved to other placements. Housing Doe, a male who identifies as a female and is undergoing hormone therapy, was a unique challenge.

"We made lemonade out of lemons," Semple said.

He and his group entered the restrictive housing unit, which was noticeably quieter than its counterpart at Garner.

He stopped to pet puppies and answer questions in the unit that hosts the Red Dog Project. He inspected the kitchen that produces meals for much of the state's prison population and peered into every corner of the textile department, where prisoners make staff uniforms and other garments.

Semple sometimes waxed philosophic during a post-tour interview, but quickly returned to the practical when asked about his relationship with correctional staff and the unions that represent them. Union representatives did not return phone calls seeking comment about their relationship with the new commissioner.

"It's not Shangri-La," Semple said. "Sometimes there are issues where we agree to disagree. Sometimes I get my best advice from the union. If I can find middle ground and still be responsible to obligations, I have a tendency to do it."

Asked about his personal life, Semple, who works long hours and rarely says no when asked to serve on another committee, characterized himself as a "boring" guy. He said he likes to play golf, read and chop wood.

"I come up with a lot of great ideas while I'm chopping," he said.

k.florin@theday.com

Twitter: @KFLORIN

Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple speaks to an inmate April 1 as he tours the textiles shop at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in East Lyme. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple speaks to an inmate April 1 as he tours the textiles shop at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in East Lyme. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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