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December 14, 2023

After recent assault claim, CT advocates call for prison oversight

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR Barbara Fair, the leading organizer for Stop Solitary CT. She is among the applicants for the ombudsperson position.

Connecticut lawmakers and advocates renewed calls for independent oversight of the state’s jails and prisons on Wednesday, weeks after it was uncovered that multiple correctional officers were facing criminal charges for allegedly beating an incarcerated man.

The calls came during a press conference conducted by Stop Solitary CT, an organization advocating for humane treatment of prisoners, and Sen. Gary Winfield, co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, in Hartford’s Legislative Office Building.

They were in response to a recent Connecticut Public report revealing that three officers at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown — Anthony Marlak, Joshua Johnson and Patrick McGoldrick — allegedly assaulted the unidentified man, who they claimed threatened them and refused to follow their orders.

The officers are facing misdemeanor charges for their actions, which lawmakers and advocates said they observed through leaked video footage from Garner. The Connecticut Mirror reviewed the footage, but the DOC hasn’t yet confirmed whether it came from the facility.

Roughly 40 seconds of video show a person being stopped by a correctional officer in the common area of a prison. The individual and the officer appear to be having a conversation and making physical gestures to each other when the officer begins striking him. Two others later join in. The individual gets wrestled to the ground, and the three officers pile on top of him. 

“I know, had I done this … I would definitely have gotten a felony charge,” Barbara Fair, the leading organizer for Stop Solitary, said on Wednesday. “But see, this is what happens when police police themselves, and that’s why we can’t be silent anymore. Because as long as we’re silent, this continues to happen.”

The press conference also comes after incarcerated people told the CT Mirror that correctional unions were unfairly portraying prison violence as widespread, not addressing the causes for an uptick in staff assaults, and attempting to undercut a law created to foster a more humane correctional system.

Known publicly as the PROTECT Act — for Promoting Responsible Oversight, Treatment, and Effective Correctional Transparency — the law increased the number of mandated hours that prisoners can spend outside of their cells, limited the DOC’s use of solitary confinement and established independent oversight of the agency.

It specifically mandated the appointment of a correctional ombudsperson in the state’s Office of Governmental Accountability who would hold the power to investigate prison conditions and complaints from incarcerated people. But more than a year since the bill was signed, the ombudsperson has yet to be appointed, a point of frustration at Wednesday’s event.

“We are getting ready to go into 2024, and we still don’t have an independent person that’s going to go inside of the Department of Correction and probably put some kind of a reduction in the assaults that are happening on both staff and on incarcerated people,” said Fair, who applied for the position.

The PROTECT Act mandated the creation of the Correction Advisory Committee, a nine-member group responsible for helping fill the post. The legislation required that within 30 days after passage on May 10, 2022, the governor and high-ranking lawmakers submit letters designating their appointments to the committee.

But many of the officials missed the statutory deadline, setting off a series of delays. Advocates also raised concerns about the appointments of two people with close ties to the DOC. 

Members of the oversight committee notified Fair and attorney Kenneth Krayeske of New Haven in recent weeks that they were finalists under consideration for the position. But the committee has not announced the full list of frontrunners or held a public hearing, which the law requires before Gov. Ned Lamont can select the appointee. 

“The first thing we can do is be here, be on record,” Winfield said Wednesday. “The second thing we can do is engage directly in conversation with the administration about why it is we don’t have it. It doesn’t really matter anymore why we don’t have it. The question is, ‘How fast are we going to get it?’” 

The importance of independent oversight was highlighted by the assaults at Garner earlier this fall, the lawmakers and advocates said. Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the leaked video triggered her because her son was once assaulted while under DOC care. 

“It is time for us to stop turning our cheek and looking the other way and acting like these things don’t happen. This is not a one-sided story,” Porter said. “I am not here to diminish the staff assaults, because those are real, and they matter as well. But let’s tell the whole story and the whole truth so that we can have a whole solution to what we’re doing.”

Fair had a similar experience, she said. At the age of 17, one of her sons was placed in Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s closed supermax prison, and went through “torture and trauma” that ultimately broke him. Twenty years later, Fair said, he still hasn’t recovered.

“I just can’t be silent anymore,” said Fair, who was visibly emotional. “We have got to stop doing what we’re doing to people every single day behind those bars. So many of our kids now are lost because of it.”

People incarcerated at York Correctional Institution in Niantic provided written testimony for the press conference’s speakers to read aloud, offering a first-hand perspective of what they’ve recently observed while behind bars. 

One woman incarcerated for 20 years said she was happy to hear about the PROTECT Act’s passage. But in prison, she said, it doesn’t make a “big difference since we’re always locked down.” Another woman wrote that she found it “funny” that correctional officials “never seem to mention all the unrelenting and often unprovoked” assaults and sexual assaults by staff. 

The woman wrote that last summer, after working for a few hours in the hot weather, a guard forced her, while on her menstrual cycle, to take out her bloody tampon, turn around, bend over and cough — all before she was allowed to put in a new one. She put forward the anecdote as an example of why the prison “makes her sick.”

“As much as I appreciate everything y’all are doing out there, there is so much more that needs to be put in the spotlight,” she said. 

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