On Thursday, Connecticut legislators voted PROTECT Act, SB459 out of Judiciary Committee with a margin of 31-9. The journey to the desk of Gov. Ned Lamont begins. Once again people from across the state will wait anxiously for the governor’s signature.
Watching Judiciary discussion and vote I was reminded of two of my favorite Dr. Martin Luther King quotes. First, “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”. In a second one he spoke about the courage to do the right thing. “Cowardice asks is it safe. Expediency asks is it politic. Vanity asks is it popular and conscience asks is it right right.” He went on to say, “There comes a time when one has to take a stand that is neither, safe, politic or popular” but moral conscience that says it’s right.
I watched his words play out during the committee vote and I suspect will play out again during the soon to come General Assembly vote. I am hopeful that I will be witnessing the moral compass in Connecticut politics move toward justice and humanity.
With the upcoming vote I will be thinking about all the people across Connecticut who want to see us do the right thing. On my heart will be my son hoping that hearing this legislation is becoming law might bring him solace and lead toward healing from unspeakable pain he endured at age 17 inside Northern Supermax, in punitive segregation in Manson and in Garner CI where the seriously mentally ill end up after enduring state-sanctioned psychological torture. On my heart will be the parents of all those who lost their lives to this system, many young teens. Parents like Colleen Lord who has bravely fought with Stop Solitary CT so her son’s death inside Whalley Correctional would not have been in vain.
As legislators process information before the General Assembly vote I am hoping they will be doing so without misrepresentations fed them last session. One of the most misleading narratives was the notion that advocates for PROTECT Act don’t consider victims. The fact is, incarcerated people are paying for the crimes they have been convicted of. State sanctioned abuse, neglect, indifference, psychological trauma and senseless, avoidable death was not part of that sentence.
A narrative that stirred legislators’ emotions was the mention of the horrific and violent crime that occurred in Cheshire to the Petit family. In very poor taste and desperation it was used to justify inhumane conditions incarcerated people face. There was no mention that the two men Joshua Komisarjefsky and Steven Hayes, responsible for the tragedy are not suffering the inhumanity inside Connecticut jails and prisons and youth centers. Both men were transferred out of Connecticut years ago. Both are serving time in newer facilities under much better conditions in medium security prisons in Pennsylvania. Yes you read it right, serving their time in medium security prisons. The facilities are newer in construction and provide cell- and dorm-style housing. They provide an array of programming including in and outdoor gyms, educational, vocational, mental health programs including suicide prevention, special needs units, board games, cardio vascular fitness, weight training, and more.
I reached out to AFSCME union presidents who represent correctional officers. In our initial conversation it was said “90% of incarcerated people are no threat despite the horror stories several correctional officers spout about “violent and dangerous people” putting their lives at risk every day. Data reveals a very small number of incarcerated people in Connecticut are there for violent crime . Even among those convicted of violent crime a small number are involved in prison violence. According to union presidents, most “just want to serve their time”.
It’s time to end inflammatory false narratives. I understand why correctional officers need to paint such a drastic picture of Connecticut prisons. Their salaries depend upon it. Their wish to keep everyone on lockdown so they can continue to enjoy a lax day depends on it. Their need to maintain the system as is depends on it. It could also be that they come to work with deep-seated fear of African Americans and Latinos with whom they are completely disconnected and can’t see their humanity.
We heard from 1199 union members who say they come to work to help people and are constrained by department policies that negate humane, compassionate and engaging care. We heard from former employees who speak to how they were traumatized by the environment, finding themselves adapting to a very toxic system that conflicted with their ethical duty to “first, do no harm.”
One observation made was correctional officers who show up with horror stories are Caucasian which leaves me wondering have they simply bought into an irrational fear of African Americans and Latinos that dominates American society.
With the signing into law of SB459 I look forward to Commissioner Angel Quiros and his administrative staff moving Connecticut further without the need for legislation. I vow to work tenaciously to dismantle this inhumane and toxic system in the name of all those who have been mistreated, neglected, psychologically harmed, saddled with chronic disease born out of incarceration, medical neglect and malpractice, as well as honor those who have died within this system. I also do so to honor families who bear the aftereffects of state-sanctioned violence toward their loved ones.
Barbara Fair, LCSW