In Connecticut, the Commissioner of Correction, who oversees the Department of Correction (DOC) has a lot of authority. This means that Connecticut’s DOC Commissioner could make significant, positive changes for racial justice and decarceration, if they chose to prioritize policies to do so. On January 28, 2021, Connecticut’s Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee will hold a virtual nomination hearing regarding Acting DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros, Jr., Governor Lamont’s nominee to become the next DOC Commissioner.
Whoever becomes the next DOC Commissioner, that person must publicly commit to prioritizing policies for racial justice and decarceration in the state. And the legislature, whose job is to interview and eventually vote on the nominee, must do its part to set that expectation.
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, Smart Justice submitted the following testimony to the committee tasked with interviewing Acting Commissioner Quiros:
Senator Duff, Representative Gresko, Ranking Member Kelly, Ranking Member Kennedy, and distinguished members of the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee:
My name is Gus Marks-Hamilton, and I am the interim Smart Justice campaign manager with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU-CT). I am submitting this testimony regarding the Resolution Confirming Angel Quiros, Jr., of Windsor to be Commissioner of Correction.
Ending mass incarceration is the defining justice struggle of our era. Imprisonment is a brutal and costly (the average annual cost per incarcerated person in Connecticut is $62,159) response to crime that traumatizes incarcerated people and hurts families, communities, and economies. Yet the U.S. incarcerates more people, in absolute number and per capita, than any other nation. What’s more, the racial disparities in Connecticut’s prisons are among the worst in the country. Because of systemic racism, Black people in Connecticut are 9.4 times more likely to be incarcerated compared to white people while Latinx people are 3.91 times more likely. While Connecticut has made progress toward reducing the number of people it incarcerates, it has made no progress towards eliminating racial disparities in incarceration. There is still much more work to do.
The Commissioner of Correction could play an enormous role in ending mass incarceration, if the Commissioner valued that goal. In a number of scenarios, the Commissioner of Correction has the discretion to release incarcerated people who can go back into the community safely. For example, the Commissioner of Correction has the authority to release people who the state is holding pretrial for certain offenses on conditions set by the Department of Correction (DOC). In a state that holds thousands of people pretrial while they still retain the presumption of innocence, a thoughtful exercise of this discretion could significantly improve justice. The Commissioner of Correction also has discretionary authority to release people for medical and compassionate release which is seldom used. Discretionary releases could also be used to alleviate some of the racial disparities within the DOC, but instead we have seen that discretionary releases made by the executive branch have served only to reinforce existing disparities.
The Commissioner of Correction also plays a critical role during this COVID-19 pandemic. As of January 26, 2021, nineteen people have died, tragically and unnecessarily, in the custody of the DOC. It is possible that these deaths could have been avoided by strategic use of discretionary releases of people particularly susceptible to COVID-19. The DOC, though, has failed to make smart use of its discretion. The DOC claims that it has made many discretionary releases this year, but the decline in population is due much more to an enormous reduction in people entering incarceration rather than a bump in the number of people being released.
The DOC also contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in its prisons by failing to provide basic safety and hygiene to the people in its custody. People incarcerated by the DOC do not have the liberty to be able to choose to distance or isolate themselves. Despite its complete control over the people in its custody, DOC did not provide for sufficient social distancing, access to hygiene and cleaning supplies, access to PPE and medical care, or mask use in a widespread way before the ACLU-CT took them to court. Even so, the DOC consistently failed to implement even court-ordered safety measures. It is critical that, as this pandemic stretches into its second year, the DOC must change course, starting at the top.
That top-down leadership within DOC is one of the most fundamental intangibles that a Commissioner of Correction brings to the role. A Commissioner truly committed to ending mass incarceration and its attendant harms must do more than espouse reformist views. Such a Commissioner would, first, acknowledge the humanity of incarcerated people by using humanizing language, for instance by ending the DOC’s habit of referring to people who die in its custody with dehumanizing terms and irrelevant lists of convictions. That recognition of humanity would extend to the Commissioner’s priorities, which could include things like adequately resourcing people at the ends of their sentences, and providing opportunities for education, services, and growth during incarceration, and improving access to affordable, private communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones, and adequately funding physical and mental healthcare for incarcerated people. A true “reformer” would issue a COVID-19 response plan that includes releases on a large scale, with an explicit focus on racial justice. A Commissioner of Correction committed to ending mass incarceration and racial disparities in Connecticut prisons and jails would be an advocate for policies that help incarcerated people, and not just an advocate for the DOC’s budget and staff. In short, while it is a good sign that a Commissioner might self-identify as a reformer, the policies and priorities of the DOC must reflect that for it to be true.
One priority that a reformist Commissioner of Correction must advocate for is closing facilities, starting with Northern Correctional Institution. Since Connecticut’s prison and jail population has rightfully decreased over the last decade, facilities are not operating at capacity and are wasting resources. Keeping them open only allows for the possibility of increasing the number of incarcerated people at some point in the future. Instead of wasting valuable resources on unnecessary prisons, Connecticut could invest those resources into public services that truly create safety for all, by closing prisons and reinvesting the money saved into programs and services for people harmed by mass incarceration. Closures must start with Northern, a supermax facility whose intent was to be so punitive that it breaks the spirits of those incarcerated there, and whose impact is a legacy of racism (more than 84% of the people currently incarcerated in Northern are Black or Latinx) and literal torture. Any Commissioner of Correction interested in the wellbeing of incarcerated people would agree that closing Northern C.I. is the only way to ensure that this oppressive place is never again used for harm.
Everyone has a role in ending mass incarceration. That includes the Commissioner of Correction. We urge this Committee to consider how its decision today impacts not just incarcerated people, but all our communities. If the Committee wants to improve our current system of mass incarceration of disproportionately Black and Latinx people, that desire must be reflected in the choice of a Commissioner of Correction. We urge you to choose a Commissioner who will be an ally, not a barrier, in the fight for justice.