Seth Kershner State prison system must come out of the dark
Last March, J’Allen Jones died at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown. According to the Department of Correction, Jones — a 31-year-old who was receiving treatment for schizophrenia — struggled with officers while being moved from his cell to the prison’s medical facility. In turn, officers pepper-sprayed and restrained Jones, who later died after being given a “calming medication.”
Quite a different view of what transpired comes from the family of Mr. Jones. Working with attorney Paul Spinella, their lawsuit states that Jones was “handcuffed, restrained, helpless, and surrounded by as many as 10” correction officers who pepper-sprayed and beat Jones, causing injuries — including a broken neck — that led to his death.
That there can be such divergent views suggests that Jones’ family may never know exactly what happened that day.
But the Department of Correction could easily help lift their burden of not knowing.
To start with, they could release video of the incident shot by a surveillance camera. Outgoing Commissioner Scott Semple himself viewed it, as did the state’s attorney who investigated the case. But the DOC has so far decided not to release the footage. This, in spite of the DOC’s supposed “commitment to transparency and accountability,” as spokesperson Karen Martucci put it in a recent article.
The controversy surrounding Jones’ death highlights a broader problem within the DOC.
After spending the past year and a half filing public records requests and analyzing use-of-force incidents, I believe that the problem at Garner is two-fold: medical issues are met with military force, and the videos that could provide powerful testimony to this violent treatment are kept secret.
Consider this: According to written reports that I obtained through public records requests, during one six-month period in 2017, on at least 10 occasions inmates who refused to take their psychiatric medication were subjected to violent procedures known as “cell extractions.”
These operations involve a tactical team entering an inmate’s cell, pepper-spraying and sometimes striking the inmate with knees or fists, and in many cases strapping them in restraints and forcibly administering “calming medication.”
When I shared my findings with Fred Cohen — author of the leading textbook on correctional mental health law and professor emeritus at the University of Albany — he was adamant: “To treat them in that fashion is I think inherently cruel and unusual punishment. This is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
Which suggests that in the future we will have more cases like J’Allen Jones. More needless suffering, more taxpayers on the hook to settle suits filed by devastated family members.
Another reason this tragedy will recur is that so long as the DOC operates in secrecy, so long as it prevents the public from seeing the violence inflicted on inmates, it will have no reason to reform.
In the case of J’Allen Jones, there is no public outrage in part because we lack any accompanying audiovisual record of what happened. If the DOC is so confident that its officers — all 10 of them — acted appropriately in the case of Jones, then it should make public the surveillance video of the incident.
State legislators can also step up and reform the state’s Freedom of Information (or “sunshine”) law to remove the absurd loophole that prevents the public from seeing how force is used in correctional facilities. Connecticut sunshine laws carve out a special exemption for state prisons, allowing them to withhold the release of any public records that the prisons chief deems a safety or security risk. On that basis, the DOC has denied my request for videos of cell extractions at Garner. Its attorney claims that to release any videos of cell extractions would compromise the “safety and security” of the prison. Unnamed parties could study the video, they say, in order to plot the overthrow of the prison.
Far from finding this laughable, in December the state’s Freedom of Information Commission sided with the DOC on appeal.
“Sunlight,” as Justice Louis Brandeis noted, “is said to be the best of disinfectants.” If ever there were a time for the state prison system to come out of the dark, it would be now.
Seth Kershner is a writer with a focus on criminal justice issues.