As the light of street lamps illuminated a swirl of mist and drizzle, more than 65 protestors rallied Monday evening in front of the Whalley Avenue jail, demanding that the state provide its citizens with “books, not bars.”
Community members and activist groups, joining together in protest of state legislation that would spend $260 million for two new prisons, called on Governor M. Jodi Rell to rescind her temporary ban on parole for violent offenders. Critics have charged that since being implemented in September, the ban has led to a swell in prison populations in Connecticut, which has exacerbated overcrowding and resulted in unsanitary conditions and increased violence among inmates.
But state Department of Corrections officers interviewed said state jails provide clean and adequate resources and have not witnessed increased violence in the wake of the ban.
Legislators on the state Judiciary Committee have said they will debate 15 bills relating to parole and prison reform at the state capitol today. A special session will convene in January to pass the legislation.
Rell enacted the ban after the July murder of a woman and her two daughters in Cheshire at the hands of two criminals who were out on parole. Rell will lift the ban once the legislature reforms the parole process, state Department of Corrections external affairs director Brian Garnett said.
But ralliers said the proposed new-prison legislation — which would classify home invasion as a persistent dangerous felony and strengthen the state’s “three strikes” law — is inadequate and detrimental to public safety. The ban should be lifted immediately, rather than in January when legislation passes, so that inmates who would otherwise be free on parole are not detained unjustly, they said.
“I’m concerned that a tiny fraction of the bill is dedicated toward rehabilitating people when they’re coming out of prison in comparison to the amount of money that’s going to be spent on building two new prisons,” said Megan Fountain ’07, an organizer with Unidad Latina en Acción, which is a nonprofit in Fair Haven. “Prisons are overcrowded, and what we need are solutions to integrate people into society, not create more beds.”
According to a Nov. 16 article in the New Haven Independent, inmates at the Whalley jailhouse have recently reported finding maggots in the showerheads and being forced to walk around in dirty, stained linen.
Garnett said the DOC is cognizant of the state’s overcrowded jails, but the increased inmate populations have not resulted in a decline in sanitation and safety.
Contrary to what was reported in the Independent, he said, Whalley jailhouse inmates have access to laundry machines, and those sleeping on cots in the gym do not fight over one bathroom but have access to 16 urinals and toilets.
Although Garnett said the DOC does not keep a record of prison capacities because state jails cannot deny criminals who are sent to them, state Rep. State Rep. Mike Lawlor said Connecticut prisons can hold about 17,500 prisoners.
As of yesterday, Garnett counted 19,630 inmates in Connecticut jails — over 1,000 of whom were added since Rell announced the ban, Lawlor said.
“Despite the fact the system is crowded, our performance measures — and we define those as assaults on staff, inmates, use of force by our staff — those measures all remain at historically low levels,” he said. “No one is sleeping in dirty linen, and no one’s fighting over toilets.”
Lawlor, who co-sponsored prison reform legislation with his judiciary committee co-chair State Sen. Andrew McDonald, said the committee today will openly debate numerous alternatives to new jail facilities, such as the expansion of existing jailhouses and shorter incarceration penalties for nonviolent offenders.
A permanent elimination of parole would lead to massive and dangerous overcrowding, he said, but the temporary parole ban is necessary for the sake of comprehensively reforming the parole process.
Connecticut’s jails are already crowded to the point of posing a safety hazard, Lawlor said, but until the state builds more facilities, the rehabilitative programs that critics have been calling for will be nonexistent, since Corrections officers must first deal with inmates who are sleeping on the floors of counseling rooms and school rooms.
“I don’t want [more jails] either, but it’s not a question of what people want — it’s a question of what people need, and what you need is enough facilities for the inmates you have,” Lawlor said.
Among the 15 initiatives the legislature will consider Tuesday are six different “three strikes” proposals, the creation of an electronic criminal-justice database, the enhancement of nurse training and recruitment and the application of GPS technology to the monitoring of criminals on parole.
The Coalition Against the Parole Ban organized Monday’s event, which was endorsed by People Against Injustice, Youth Rights Media, Unidad Latina en Accion, A.N.S.W.E.R. CT, Connecticut Center for a New Economy and Yale’s Undergraduate Organizing Committee.