Prison Reform Activists Call for Greater Transparency, Oversight After Deaths in Custody

Taneisha Hill speaks at a press conference Wednesday at the Capitol, as her cousin Barbara Fair looks on (CT Examiner)


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

HARTFORD – When Taneisha Hill’s brother, James Henderson Hill, died suddenly last year while incarcerated at MacDougall Correctional Facility, she found out he had been hospitalized only after a call from a nurse at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, where he was taken. 

Hill said she then called the Department of Correction repeatedly to find out what had happened, only to be told that the department didn’t have any information about her brother. Instead, she was asked again and again where she had gotten her information, and was then told to wait until 7 p.m. the next evening to learn more. 

When Hill arrived at the hospital the following day, she said, she was met by two armed Correction Officers. She found her brother obviously unresponsive, but handcuffed to the bed. Hill said the officers refused to give her any privacy. 

“I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to hit a pillow. But I couldn’t,” she told CT Examiner. 

Hill is a cousin of Barbara Fair, the head of Stop Solitary Connecticut, an advocacy organization that has pushed for improving correctional facilities and eliminating the use of solitary confinement. 

On Wednesday, State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven and State Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Easton, joined Fair and other family members of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals at a press conference calling for greater transparency from the Department of Correction — particularly regarding inmate deaths. 

“It really is our responsibility — all of us — to make sure that the people that have been entrusted to the care of Connecticut’s Department of Corrections are receiving the things that they need,” Porter said at the press conference. “They have a right to proper care. They have a right to transparency and accountability. They have a right to have their voices heard. And they have a right to be treated like human beings.” 

The Department of Correction said in a statement that James Hill’s “unfortunate death” was still under internal investigation, and so the department could not provide additional information. They also said that Taneisha Hill was not listed as an emergency contact for her brother, and that federal law limits who the department is able to share private health information with. 

At the press conference, Hughes brought up the death of Robby Talbot, an inmate at New Haven Correctional Facility who died after being placed in 5-point restraints and sprayed with pepper spray. The death was later ruled a homicide. 

“No one was held accountable or charged with his death because there was no independent investigation done at the time,” Hughes said. “If people want to stop abuse in our prisons — state-sanctioned abuse — it cannot be done by relying on internal investigations by state police and the Department of Correction. We must have independent oversight.”

On Wednesday, Stop Solitary Connecticut called for the appointment of an independent ombuds to oversee the Department of Correction, a provision included in the PROTECT Act passed by the legislature in 2022.

The original version of the PROTECT Act, passed a year earlier in 2021, had been vetoed by Gov. Ned Lamont, in part because the restrictions placed on solitary confinement and restraints, he said, would “put the safety of incarcerated persons and corrections employees at substantial risk.”

The legislature passed a modified version of the bill in 2022, requiring the formation of a Correction Advisory Committee tasked with submitting a list of potential candidates for the office of Correction Ombuds. The committee has submitted three names — Barbara Fair, Assistant Public Defender Hilary Carpenter, and Ken Krayeske, a civil rights attorney.

According to the Yale Law Clinic over 200 people died in the Connecticut prison system between 2019 and 2021.  There were 73 reported deaths in 2022, according to numbers provided by the Office of the Inspector General, twenty-eight were attributed to natural causes, and an additional nine died of a suspected drug overdose.

At the press conference, attorney Alex Taubes raised several cases of inmates who died in custody. 

A 45-year-old man, Taubes said, went into prison in April 2021 for a 30-day sentence. According to Taubes, the man was later dropped off at a bus stop without a bus pass after completing his sentence, already in kidney failure after contracting COVID. His lungs failed and he died 23 days later. 

In another case, an inmate at Cheshire Correctional Facility committed suicide in November 2021. Despite alerting staff of his mental health problems for months, he was never given a mental health check, said Taubes. The man was eventually found dead by another inmate. 

“When I say that we need an independent DOC ombudsperson, I mean it. The state of our correctional system right now is, it’s not just a mess, it is a catastrophe,” said Taubes. 

The need for Department of Correction oversight, say family members and advocates, isn’t simply a matter of isolated emergencies. 

Leila Blackman said that her youngest son began experiencing mental health crises in March 2023, at the age of 22. After a family member called 911, he was injured in a skirmish with police officers and brought to a local hospital. After a stay in Whiting Forensic Hospital, he was found competent by the court and sent to Garner Correctional Facility. He is currently awaiting trial. 

“He has told me that he doesn’t get fresh air. He’s told me he doesn’t get enough food. He’s a vegetarian, and he’s telling me he’s always hungry and losing weight,” said Blackman. “He doesn’t receive educational services, no access to a library, or religious services. He spends all day locked up in a cell by himself. No therapy or support groups. No interaction with family or friends because he hasn’t had any visitors. In my opinion, this is inhumane and unacceptable.” 

Porter said there were other policy changes she wanted to see, including an independent medical examiner tasked with performing autopsies on the bodies of people who died in incarceration. She said she also wanted additional staffing for the department.  Porter said Commissioner Angel Quiros had requested 15 additional positions but the legislature had only funded five. 

On Wednesday Hill told the assembled audience that she had not received a letter of condolence from the Department of Correction, so far, but she had received a bill.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.