Lamont vetoes prison bill that would have limited solitary confinement

HARTFORD — Gov. Ned Lamont on Wednesday vetoed controversial legislation that would have limited the amount of time incarcerated people could be kept in solitary confinement and the use of restraints.

But in an executive order accompanying the veto, the governor ordered the Department of Correction to immediately enact policies that limit restrictions for the incarcerated. Lamont ordered that by Oct. 1, solitary inmates get out of their cells for at least two hours a day.

“I am not signing this legislation because, as written, it puts the safety of incarcerated persons and correction employees at substantial risk,” Lamont said in a written explanation. “This legislation places unreasonable and dangerous limits on the use of restraints. The bill as written only permits correctional officers with the rank of captain or higher to order the use of handcuffs and only permits therapists to order restraints during a psychiatric emergency.”

It was a setback for advocates who have been working for years to reform what they claim is a system of torturous procedures within the state Department of Correction. Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the lead sponsor, said he was surprised by the governor’s action.

“I believe that I had heard he represented he would sign the bill, so to do the opposite is frusrating,” Winfield, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a phone interview. “There is absolutely no reason that that bill should be vetoed. But the governor has a right to be wrong.”

The veto marked a victory for prison guards who had mounted a late-afternoon rally at the state Capitol to persuade Lamont to veto the legislation. The event, set to start at 4 p.m. — four minutes after Lamont’s veto announcement — turned into a celebration for what the guards believe are important tools in keeping inmates under control, including the use of restraints.

About 150 correction officers attended the rally, which was announced Tuesday afternoon. They cheered when Jody Barr, executive director of AFSCME Council 4, announced that the bill had been killed, and credited meetings Lamont had last week with the presidents of three bargaining units representing prison workers.

Tom Lally, an officer at Garner Correctional Center in Newtown, said union pressure on lawmakers and the governor yielded the result. “We understand where this bill was coming from, what the intentions were, but we deserve a seat at the table,” said Lally, who has 10 years in the prison system.

The union leaders said they were not sure what the executive order might do to affect the current procedures. Collin Provost, president of AFSCME Local 391, said that the bill went far beyond what correction officers could perform to keep facilities secure and safe.

On a related matter, Provost said that legislation in the state budget to allow free phone calls of at least 90 minutes per day for all inmates seems to also be very problematic.

A veto override would require two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate. The previous 26-10 vote in the Senate would reach the 24-vote threshold for an override, but the 87-55 vote in the House was 13 votes short of the 101 votes needed to reach two-thirds.

Lamont, speaking after an unrelated event in Stamford Wednesday night, said he conferred with union officials and lawmakers.

“Solitary confinement is not an appropriate form of punishment, but I have a job as governor to make sure the corrections officers and inmates are kept safe,” he said. “So we’re going to do through regulation what they tried to do through legislation. We’re going to make some adjustments and allow the inmates and corrections officers to stay safe. Some of these folks who are in solitary are a danger to other corrections officers. We have to put in place a structure where they’re not in solitary confinement 24 hours a day, but we can control that and keep that facilities safe. That was my number-one concern.”

The legislation would have given the DOC until July 1, 2023 to create a program to allow each inmate six-and-a-half hours a day outside their cell. Earlier this year, agency officials said they were changing procedures for what prison officials call “restrictive housing.”

It was the first bill of the year to earn Lamont’s rejection and abruptly ended the efforts of advocates including Stop Solitary CT until the next legislative year.

It was a major goal of lawmakers including Winfield and Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven. In early 2020, Winfield arranged for a simulated solitary confinement cell to be installed in the Capitol lobby.

Winfield said that in the case of a captain or higher ordering handcuffs, wardens could delegate authority to lower-ranking officers. He said the effective dates of the bill would have given the DOC plenty of time to put procedures in place.

While Lamont seems to be focused on time spent in cells, Winfield said, there were other parts of the legislation that don’t appear to be addressed in the accompanying executive order, including the appointment of an ombudsman to monitor disciplinary incidents; and changes in visitation rules.

Others expressed anger.

“It confirms that the governor does not value the lives of people incarcerated in Connecticut,” said David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, in a phone interview. “His actions continue to bear that out. The bill would not have banned solitary. It would be phased in over a couple of years. This is a practice that has been condemned across the world and we’re going to continue to do it here.”

Barbara Fair of the Stop Solitary CT coalition, which had members demonstrating outside the State Capitol building for weeks during the recent legislative session, said late Wednesday afternoon that she was still trying to catch her breath after the veto.

“It’s unbelievable but somehow not unexpected,” Fair said in a phone interview. “Where were the governor and his executive order when the people were dying of COVID? The DOC does not want any oversight over what they are doing. I’m not shocked. I’m disappointed and angry, with all the work we put into this.”

She said that solitary confinement is exacerbating the problem that incarcerated people have with mental illness. “It’s going to continue to dehumanize our people,” Fair said. “People are losing their minds. People are killing themselves. Right now, I’m just trying to breathe.”

As of Monday there were 8,957 inmates in Connecticut, according to the Department of Correction, down sharply from before the pandemic.

Staff writer Paul Schott contributed to this report.