Prisons Getting physical
Correction officers’ use of force against inmates increased over the last 10 years even as Connecticut’s prison population declined, state statistics show.
But the two sides that run the state’s prisons — corrections officers and officials at the Department of Correction — disagree over the scope of the problem, whether use of force is rising or falling and what, if anything, should be done.
Corrections officers say the need to use force has risen because of prison reforms initiated by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration, such as an often celebrated early release program and less use of isolation cells to punish misbehavior.
“We are dealing with maximum security prisons and a lot of the crimes are violent,” said Rudy Demiraj, president of ASFCME Local 387, which represents prison guards. “The idea of turning prison into some kind of summer camp is not proving to be positive.”
DOC officials say the prison reforms are working and use of force is actually decreasing.
“The 10-year comparison numbers are not accurate,” said Semple, who pointed to what he said were more reliable numbers using a sample from the last five years showing a decrease in use of force.
But DOC’s numbers show an overall 15 percent rise in use of force over the 10-year period, with a 12 percent decrease coming during the recent five-year period.
The only constant is a steady drop in the inmate population since 2007, amounting to a nearly 30 percent decrease and 5,500 fewer prisoners.
State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, and a vice chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee, said prison reforms and operations need to be constantly assessed.
“Criminal justice is an imperfect science, requiring the ongoing analysis of how well the policy decisions we make are working,” Stafstrom said.
The differing assessments of how the prisons are operating is playing out against the backdrop of a recent death at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown. Jallen Jones, a 31-year-old inmate from Georgia suffering from mental health issues, died in March while being restrained by officers at the prison.
The state medical examiner ruled Jones’ death a homicide, and prison officials have said the use of force was not excessive.
State police are investigating the incident and the officers involved, who have not been identified, remain on the job, Semple said.
“I’ve viewed the video,” Semple said. “If I felt the use of force was inappropriate, (the officers involved) would not be working now.”
By the numbers
The numbers — all produced by DOC — paint a confusing picture.
For example, the data shows that the number of times officers used force against inmates rose 15 percent between 2007 and 2017 — from 1,040 incidents to 1,224.
That rise occurred while the number of inmates dramatically decreased.
But when a five-year look-back is applied — from 2013 to 2017 — use of force by officers decreased by nearly 12 percent, from 1,384 incidents to 1,224.
The statistics also show use of chemical agents — namely pepper spray — against inmates rose from 265 incidents in 2007 to 496 in 2017 — a 46 percent increase.
When the five year period favored by Semple is analyzed — between 2013 and 2017 — use of pepper spray rose by 18 percent.
Between 2007 and 2017, assaults on officers dropped from 266 incidents in 2007 to 153 incidents in 2017, a 42 percent decrease.
Semple said there is a problem with the use-of-force numbers collected by the DOC in the early years of the last decade, which he said skews the overall trend. And he noted that those errors make if difficult to assess how the department is performing.
He said reports from some prisons, such as Bridgeport Correctional Institution, a 730-inmate facility where many prisoners are fresh off the street, show little use of force in certain years — an outcome Semple said is not realistic.
Later reports, from between 2013 and 2017, more accurately reflect the use of force at each prison, he said.
“The five-year trend is accurate,” Semple said. “I’m questioning these (other) numbers.”
Use of force is generally defined by DOC as any physical contact with an inmate to compel compliance with instructions or orders, including restraint techniques.
Chemical weapons are generally defined as deployment of aerosol dispensers, such as pepper spray.
“We are in the process of restructuring our data related to incidents to enhance our abilities to assess trends and patterns,” said Karen Martucci, a DOC spokesperson.
A Hearst Connecticut Media review of staffing data obtained through a Freedom of Information request shows the number of officers assigned to prisons has steadily dropped since 2010 as the inmate population decreased.
For example, the numbers show 21 fewer guards at Garner this year compared to 2010; 20 fewer at Bridgeport Correctional; 36 fewer at the New Haven Correctional Center and down 39 at Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers.
The inmate population at those prisons also decreased: 88 fewer inmates at Garner; 193 fewer at Bridgeport; 39 fewer at New Haven; and 664 fewer inmates at Osborn.
Between 2010 and 2018, the number of officers working at the state’s prisons dropped by 16 percent — or by 619 less officers — while the inmate population decreased by nearly 27 percent.
Demiraj, the union official, said staff reductions are a “concern,” along with an overall change in DOC’s inmate management methods.
“We are seeing a much softer approach, a more lenient approach,” Demiraj said. “At Manson (Youth Institution) last week an officer was assaulted before he could take his radio out.”
Reforms cited as contributing factors include the state’s early release program, reduced use of administrative segregation or solitary confinement, allowing prisoners more out-of-cell time and eliminating security posts within some prisons.
Stafstrom said he believes the reforms have been successful, but added lawmakers should be willing to look at adjustments.
“While the data is pretty clear that the reforms we have made have reduced recidivism, improved public safety and saved taxpayer dollars, we must be attentive to statistics such as these and make appropriate policy tweaks as necessary,” Stafstrom said.
Demiraj said that while some of DOC’s numbers may be inaccurate, the overall trend of an increasing need to use force is accurate.
He pointed to prison reforms as a main reason.
“There is a big push to allow inmates to be reintegrated into the community,” Demiraj said. “That has left a population that is more problematic.”
State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden and an opponent of the state’s early release program, said he’s not surprised that the need to use fore is rising.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations about (DOC) and the system is broken; it’s not working,” Suzio said. “I’ve talked to officers in and out of the system and they all say the criminals are gaming the system.
“It’s ironic,” Suzio added. “The early release program was to control inmates so you can take away the incentive if they misbehave. It’s to protect the safety of guards.”
Steve Carbone, a service representative for AFSCME Council 4, said much has changed under the Malloy administration.
“We have more inmates with mental health issues,” Carbone said, adding that often translates into a need to use force.
“Inmates used to do a job, but many jobs have been eliminated due to automation,” Carbone added, noting productive jobs keep inmates busy and offer an important incentive to behave.
“Now it’s leaning on a broom or a mop rather than proactive jobs,” Carbone said.
Jamelia Morgan, a University of Connecticut law school professor who has sued states over excessive force, said prison reform can lead to increased use of force by officers.
“Typically, (inmates) have behavior problems, so use of force could be being used to stop self-harm, suicide and for other reasons,” Morgan said. “It does tend to be a population with psychiatric disabilities.”
Morgan said leaner staff and limiting restricted housing can also impact the amount of force used by officers.
“This (trend) suggests a failure to manage this special population; that the way they deal with mental illness is through force,” Morgan said.
Demiraj said the ability to isolate and manage inmates has been “dramatically” reduced.
“When you take away a deterrent, you take away the incentive to behave,” Demiraj said. “The agency raised the bar on what would cause placement into segregation. They raised the bar and lowered the standards. It takes more to get in the system.”
The early release program, Demiraj added, has left the worse inmates behind bars and new requirements for more time out of cells allows for additional mingling that can lead to misbehavior.
Semple said the reforms have not changed the department’s need to use force.
“Research has shown that use of isolation can make people prone to mental illness,” Semple said. “There is no predictor that the new way to manage has increased assaults on staff.”
Demirag disagreed with the commissioner’s assessment.
“A lot of their initiatives have unintended consequences,” Demiraj said.