To the Editor:
On Monday I testified at a public hearing to confirm 9 members to the newly forming CT Department of Correction oversight advisory committee. Stop Solitary, CT saw the need to call for independent oversight over the department following countless lawsuits, unnecessary early death, scandals among correctional staff, allegations of abusive and inhumane treatment and an internal grievance process that 99.5% of the time ruled against the complainants. Connecticut is one of the very few correctional agencies across the nation with no independent oversight. We knew from all the internal and external scandals we have been reading about for years that this department could not police itself and so it was fundamental to create a space independent of Department of Correction where justice might be served.
Our journey began with the passage of SB 459 which included establishing a civilian committee with a very important assignment, the hiring of an ombudsperson to go into facilities across the state and check out allegations of prisoner abuse, inspect facilities and review departmental policy and procedure.
We took the time to reach out to people across the state who showed an interest in serving in that capacity. There was a criteria to follow relative to specific members of the legislature who would be making appointments to the committee. We carefully critiqued each candidate finding some to be ineligible due to negative relationships with incarcerated people. Months of hard work provided an excellent set of candidates who were then introduced to the respective legislator. Most were appointed and we assumed the next stage of our work was the implementation phase. To our surprise on Monday, December 12, 2022 we were reminded that some legislators truly want to shift the tide of racial injustice in Connecticut while others will take every opportunity available to stop progress from ever taking place.
Sometime after SB 459 was voted on and on its way to the Governor’s desk the legislation was compromised. It appears there were legislators who were unhappy with the prospect of progress and sought out a way to undermine its success. At the public hearing we saw two correctional officers were appointed to the committee and immediately began to smell a rat. We followed the trail of rodent poop and came upon obstructionism at its finest. It was clear someone made a desperate attempt to undermine any progress SB 459 would bring.
What happened is very clear. It doesn’t take a law degree to follow the steps that led to the undermining on SB 459. Public Act 22-114. Section 6 which was established to provide regular mental health screenings for police officers was strategically used to produce the outcome obstructionists wanted to see. Onto that bill description was added “Correctional advisory” and with it an increase from 9 members to 11 was made adding two correctional staff to the committee. I questioned the legality of it all and I’m told despite the fact that it’s an underhanded and reprehensible act, it’s legal. It was at that point I began to open my eyes to the fact that lawmakers can establish any law that suits them to manifest the outcome they want. With that reality the rest of us are simply pawns in their game of chess. That’s an extremely difficult pill to swallow so I’m asking myself should I simply accept that incarcerate people will never have any real avenue for redress for harms they are subjected inside Connecticut jails and prisons? I say not. Dr. King once said, “an unjust law is no law at all”. When we accept this kind of lawlessness among lawmakers we are in fact breeding anarchy. The struggle to undo this injustice is not over for me. What others see as a defeat I see as a challenge.
At some point, the collective good people across this state cannot remain silent because silence is acceptance. We have a duty to derail this runaway train. I believe as we call for independent oversight over DOC we must consider making a call for legislative oversight since it appears there are lawmakers operating within our state legislature who lack moral integrity, turpitude and the will to do right by marginalized people within our state who hold no power over their own lives.
We can keep telling ourselves and selling the narrative to others that we are progressive yet no matter how many times we sell that story to ourselves and others the truth remains truth. We have a lot of work to do in Connecticut around racial and social equity.
Barbara Fair, LCSW
West Haven, CT