Connecticut legislature looks to establish oversight for prison health care
Hartford — Advocates of a bill that would require oversight of the Department of Correction’s health care repeatedly criticized the care given at York Correctional Institution in East Lyme during a news conference on Tuesday.
State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, and several organizations in support of the bill, said Tuesday that the DOC's health care system is inadequate at best and willfully negligent at worst. “We have a responsibility to make sure the individuals who are incarcerated are treated like humans, like individuals who at times have gone through suffering,” he said.
Senate Bill 448 would create a commission to oversee the DOC’s administration of health care, as the DOC currently oversees itself. This commission also will evaluate “whether the Department of Public Health should have oversight over the provision of such services or license the facilities located in such correctional institutions where inmates receive health care services.” Anwar said the oversight committee should be made up of “stakeholders who care about incarcerated individuals.”
The bill contains a lengthy section dedicated to ensuring women who are pregnant at York are properly cared for. It passed with bipartisan support out of the Public Health Committee and has been recommended for the floor.
Anwar was optimistic on Tuesday that with 10 co-sponsors, including state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, the bill could become law.
Speakers said Tuesday that they didn’t understand why a system built to imprison people is also being tasked with keeping them alive.
“Connecticut is the only state in the country where DOC oversees and operates its own health care. Just like any other entity that oversees itself, it undermines public trust,” said Diane Lewis, the communications director for the Voices of Women of Color and mother of a son who was formerly incarcerated. “Developing a trusting relationship can be very challenging when the entity that is responsible for taking away your freedom is the same entity that is responsible for all your health care needs.”
Among the speakers at Tuesday’s news conference, which took place in person at the Legislative Office Building, was Marisol Garcia, a public policy intern with the Young Women’s Christian Association who was formerly incarcerated at York. At the time of her incarceration she also worked as a correctional health care worker at the institution. When she was released, she had a mostly clean bill of health.
“I was one of the lucky ones, where I was able to walk away from the experience with my health intact. However, I have a friend who still resides at the prison who is being directly impacted by the subpar care at the correctional facilities,” Garcia said. “Due to her advancing age and a medical condition that will worsen as she advances in age throughout the course of incarceration, she is no longer able to walk. When she arrived at the facility, she was able to walk with the aids of a cane and a walker. Now she is bedridden.”
Garcia said a staffing shortage has kept her friend from getting the one-on-one care she needs. The bill specifically provides for appropriate health care staffing at York and other institutions.
“I came home in 2019. One of the hardest things was walking out of there and leaving her behind knowing that her level of care is not sufficient,” Garcia told The Day after the news conference. “There are other people who come home from York with long-term health issues. It’s ridiculous.”
Ken Krayeske, a civil rights attorney with a long history of activism in the state, cited several women who served as examples that the health care issues at York are systemic:
“I’m here for Tiana Laboy, who gave birth on a toilet. The Attorney General’s Office asked her if she could’ve given birth on the bed instead,” he said. “I’m here for Mojah Neish, who had a medical event and sat in the infirmary at York Correctional for three days before she was taken to a hospital. She’s in a nursing home in Hartford ... she can’t even clap. She can’t talk, she can’t walk. I’m here for Desiree Diaz who ... wasn’t in for 24 hours when she was detoxing and when they found her in the morning, she was in rigor mortis. She wasn’t convicted of a crime but she suffered a death sentence. I’m here for Cara Tangreti. She was repeatedly raped by multiple different correctional officers when she was at York.”
Garcia noted that she used to work with Laboy in her capacity at York. “I used to be a mentor in a program at York for 18- to 25-year-olds. She actually came to the program, this was after she had her baby in the toilet,” she said. “You’re also dealing with postpartum depression and other mental health issues, the trauma that goes with what happened to her.”
Krayeske said litigation has been unsuccessful in many cases because of judges’ deference to state power, particularly the Attorney General’s Office. He and others at Tuesday’s news conference said they’ve heard many other stories of malpractice that the public isn’t aware of.
“We need legislation to oversee the Connecticut Department of Correction,” Krayeske said. “It is torture, plain and simple, which occurs behind those walls.”
Anwar and Krayeske both said York is a problem because women, even those who are not incarcerated, receive a lesser level of health care due to misogyny.
In public testimony regarding the bill, the DOC pushed back on what it said were unrealistic staffing expectations.
"The bill, as structured, requires four mental health employees for each facility. This requirement is untenable in many locations, and not likely to be appropriate either," the DOC wrote. "The bill requires a complete mental health assessment on every inmate admission. DOC would need to double its mental health staff in each jail at Hartford Correctional Center, Bridgeport Correctional Center and New Haven Correctional Center, and likely need to increase second shift staffing at York Correctional Institution and Corrigan Correctional Institution. Aside from additional personnel services costs, at many of these facilities, there is inadequate space for these additional clinicians. If 100% of inmates are required to be seen by a mental health provider regardless of their acuity or medical need, the amount of time needed to complete these evaluations is enormous." Corrigan is located in Montville.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and state Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, were pushing a bill aimed at improving mental health for inmates. But, Conley said Tuesday, the state Sentencing Commission contacted them and said it has an ongoing study that could incorporate what Osten and Conley are looking for.
She and Osten had called for the creation of a task force to study the issue of mental health among inmates and find ways to better support them.
The task force would identify the mental health status of the state's inmate population and assess how much time someone with a mental health condition serves of their sentence compared to other inmates. The panel also would weigh having the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security oversee certain inmates until discharge; identifying any childhood physical or sexual trauma they may have; conducting medical tests to identify any possible brain seizure activity; and identifying rates of recidivism — the likelihood of committing another crime — among inmates with mental health needs and what, if any, services they had received since discharge.