More than five dozen New Haven residents came together for a candlelight vigil Monday, invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams as they called for a more humane criminal justice system.
“We are here to give hope to all those behind bars — to give voice to those who are invisible in our community,” shouted Barbara Fair, a member of the People Against Injustice coalition, which led the protest.
As Connecticut legislators hashed out compromises in Hartford ahead of today’s special session devoted to criminal justice reform, residents outside the Whalley Avenue jail protested Gov. Jodi Rell’s parole ban and some of her proposals to fix what most agree is a broken system.
Both the ban and the proposed reform were prompted by the triple murder of a mother and her two daughters last summer in Cheshire. Two men on parole have been charged with the crime.
While decrying the horror of the Cheshire killings — which took place in the suburbs — speakers asked why prior murders, in cities such as New Haven, had not prompted the same outrage and calls for reform. And they said they rejected two of Rell’s proposed solutions, which have also found vocal opposition among state Democrats.
One would mandate life imprisonment with parole possible after 30 years for anyone convicted of three violent felonies, a so-called “three-strikes” law. The other would make the invasion of an occupied home a violent felony, regardless of whether the perpetrator thought anyone was home.
Chris Cooper, a spokesman for Gov. Rell, said the governor’s set of 18 proposals, including the two over which there is contention, is a “very straightforward public safety issue.” He said there is no time table on the parole suspension and that Rell will lift it once she has confidence that reforms to protect the public have been put in place.
Cooper explained that the home invasion provision is necessary to ensure that every intruder does not simply claim to the prosecutor that he or she did not know anyone was home in order to avoid the tougher penalties. Among other things, Rell’s proposal also calls for minimum five-year terms for burglaries committed with a firearm or at night.
But speakers at last night’s vigil said the parole ban and the governor’s proposals only exacerbated an overcrowded prison system. Prison-guard unions in Connecticut have said they are severely understaffed, the Associated Press reports, though protestors noted with some irony that conditions are much worse for inmates than guards.
One speaker noted that a new inmate with tuberculosis was brought in by guards with masks and then promptly dumped in a crowded cell. Shelton Tucker, a member of the PAI coalition, told those gathered outside the correction center walls that he’d heard of maggots crawling out of drains in the bathrooms.
Vigil attendees argued that prison reform should focus on reducing the populations in prison, whose conditions many described as unconscionable — and not on building new ones.
But, added Tucker — who said he has spent time in prison — the community needs to do its part as well: “[Prison] cannot be seen as a rite of passage. We have to be better parents … [and] fight like hell to stay outside.”
Khalil Iskarous, also of PAI, explained how drug laws unfairly target primarily lower-income and minority populations, who tend to live in more densely populated areas.
He said laws imposing stricter penalties for drug possession within 1,500 feet of a school are effective everywhere within the New Haven city limits — except the Yale Bowl. Suburban residents, where the schools are spread further apart, do not need to worry about these laws, he said.
Representative Mike Lawlor (D-99), who has publicly recounted the poor and overcrowded prison conditions he has witnessed on tour at the Whalley Avenue jail, said the goal of the special session would be to find ways of taking nonviolent offenders out of the prison system.
“There’s a lot in [the proposed bills] on diversion, reentry and treatment. All of those things are certainly cheaper than prisons, and more effective, for some people, so we can focus prison resources on the dangerous ones,” Lawlor said. “Many convicts are mentally ill or homeless, so you can’t just push them out the door.”
Rell has asked that any proposals “carrying a price tag” be delayed until a Feb. 6 budget session, her spokesman said, and that tomorrow’s session focus solely on changes to the penal code, the Board of Pardons and Paroles and protesting victims’ rights.
But Lawlor disagrees: “We have to get these resources out there immediately.”
Still, he said, there is bipartisan consensus on at least 85 percent of the proposed changes.
Back outside the jail though, the concerns of the protestors, some of whom had friends or family inside, were closer to home and on a system they said had failed them. Some wondered aloud about the injustice they said they face each day: how the color of their skin makes them targets for drug or weapon searches, or how their children were in jail on minor drug charges even as Yale students receive a free pass.
In closing the hour-long vigil, many also asked why more people were not out on the frigid night with them. Like Dr. King’s efforts, they said, this must be a day-in and day-out struggle.
It is easy, some said, for clergy members and community supporters to take a stand from the comfortable and warm indoors.
“If our churches don’t get out here,” one protester asked, “why are we going in there?”