In response to an episode at a Newtown prison, Connecticut lawmakers and advocates for the incarcerated are demanding greater transparency and oversight in the state’s correctional system. The incident, which unfolded at Garner Correctional Institution in September, has led to criminal charges against three correction officers, igniting a debate on prison reforms.
The advocacy group Stop Solitary CT, along with Senator Gary Winfield, co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, is pushing for enhanced supervision of the Department of Correction. They are advocating for the appointment of an ombudsman to the prison system, as stipulated by a law enacted last year.
The September 25th incident at Garner Correctional Institution has become the focal point of this controversy. Correction officers Anthony Marlak, Joshua Johnson, and Patrick McGoldrick face 3rd Assault charges, following the alleged brutal assault of an unnamed incarcerated individual. Barbara Fair, the lead organizer of Stop Solitary CT, emphasized the need for an independent ombudsman to prevent such incidents, pointing to footage that purportedly shows the violent assault.
Despite the 2022 law’s provision for an ombudsman, the position remains unfilled, raising questions about the state’s commitment to prison reform. The Department of Correction placed the accused officers on paid leave shortly after the incident, and they were later arrested, each released on a $20,000 bond.
Senator Winfield expressed that while an ombudsman might not have prevented the Garner incident, their presence is crucial for transparency in the prison system. He highlighted the need for discussions about the systemic issues causing such incidents, including the trauma prevalent within the prison environment.
The incident coincides with the Department’s efforts to manage rising assaults against staff and fights among the incarcerated since 2019. This summer, following several serious staff assaults, the department formed a committee for safety recommendations and sought an independent consultant to review policies.
The department is also working on implementing new laws to reduce solitary confinement and increase out-of-cell time for prisoners. However, correctional employee unions have criticized these changes, citing unsafe working conditions. Mike Vargo, president of AFSCME Local 1565, refrained from commenting on the September incident, emphasizing the officers’ right to due process.
Advocates, including Fair, acknowledge the increase in staff assaults but also point out the unreported assaults on incarcerated individuals. At a recent press conference, Fair and Representative Robyn Porter shared personal stories about the impact of prison sentences on their families, reading letters from current prisoners about dehumanizing conditions.
Fair, who has applied for the ombudsman position, urged the state to expedite the hiring process. A spokesperson for Governor Ned Lamont stated that the selection of an ombudsman is pending recommendations from a Correction Advisory Committee, which has yet to submit its list of candidates to the governor. The unfolding events in Connecticut’s prison system have highlighted critical gaps in oversight and the urgent need for reform.