New Connecticut Department of Correction oversight panel appointments alarm advocates
This story has been updated.
Republican lawmakers have appointed two people who have ties with Connecticut’s Department of Correction to a committee established to provide oversight of the agency — a decision that has sparked concerns among community organizers about the legitimacy and security of the panel.
Holding the power to choose one of the 11 Correction Advisory Committee appointees, Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, selected John Bowen, a recently retired correctional officer who serves on the board of a local union and has interacted with a social media account that pays homage to the Confederacy.
Meanwhile, Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, picked John Cipolli, a former correctional officer who was recently promoted to correctional counselor trainee. His brother was killed in 2021, and the person responsible for the slaying is incarcerated in a state prison.
Cipolli also publicly testified against the legislation that created the advisory committee.
Now Kissel and Fishbein’s DOC appointees will have access to sensitive information about the agency’s practices shared with the advisory committee’s other members, an outcome that some community organizers sought to avoid.
“They can’t police themselves, they just can’t,” said Barbara Fair, a founding member of Stop Solitary CT, a statewide campaign dedicated to humane treatment in correctional facilities. “No one’s going to trust bringing anything to the board.”
Advocates like Fair believed the committee would bring transparency to grievances or concerns from within correctional facilities, which was of paramount concern to advocates, given the history of the agency.
Most recently, a federal judge and jury said the DOC violated a Black man’s constitutional rights when they kept him locked in a cell “the size of a parking space” for 22 hours a day. The department faced backlash when a state audit revealed that dozens of correctional officers abused a federally-funded hotel program created to house workers affected by COVID-19. It was also criticized for its lack of transparency regarding the whereabouts and deaths of incarcerated people at the height of the pandemic.
The decision to appoint two representatives of the DOC — a department expected to police itself but frequently entangled in harmful practices exempt from public scrutiny — on the committee dampened any hopes for independent oversight. Bowen and Cipolli’s activity outside of their day jobs has only increased the advocates’ disappointment.
“They couldn’t handle having a board that’s completely independent of DOC, a board of people who actually have a history of supporting the well being of incarcerated people,” Fair said.
Daryl McGraw, a criminal justice advocate who will serve on the committee with Bowen and Cipolli, said the appointment of the two DOC representatives seems like an attempt to agitate the organizers who have long pushed for independent oversight.
“The optics would make it seem that they’re not serious about making change within that structure,” said McGraw, who was also co-chair of the state’s Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force. He spent a decade in and out of Connecticut’s prison system and says — as someone who’s experienced solitary confinement — he knows how inhumanely people in the DOC’s custody can be treated.
“If you see these two individuals fight for the rights of inmates, if that’s in their resume, then I can see why they would be qualified,” McGraw said. “But these two people seem the furthest away from what we would need on the committee.”
The committee’s structure has also prompted action from longtime state Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who recently filed a bill that would “make adjustments to the membership and procedures” of the group. It is unclear what Walker — the longtime co-chair of the Appropriations Committee and a champion of criminal justice reform — hopes to accomplish, as the bill does not yet contain any language specifying what it would do.
Walker did not respond to requests for comment.
Two new members
Senate Bill 459, also known as the PROTECT Act, passed through the 2022 General Assembly after heated battles between community organizers, DOC officials and legislators over how the state would limit the use of extreme isolation in prisons. An earlier version of the bill made it to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk in 2021, but he vetoed it, claiming it would put the safety of people who live and work in prisons at risk.
Withstanding fierce opposition from correctional staff unions, Stop Solitary CT and the DOC agreed on a bill that would prohibit the agency from placing minors in isolation and cap the time any incarcerated person could spend in isolation at 15 consecutive days, or 30 total days, within any 60-day period.
The two groups also agreed to terms on the formation of the Correction Advisory Committee, a board of Connecticut residents with diverse expertise in the state’s criminal legal system, tasked with helping appoint a new ombudsperson.
The ombudsperson, a position previously eliminated to save money, would have the power to independently conduct site visits, communicate with incarcerated people, review agency records and draft a yearly report on confinement conditions. The advisory committee would meet at least quarterly to inform and advise the ombudsperson, who would work in the state’s Office of Governmental Accountability.
As mandated by the law, the committee appointees were announced in a public hearing. Committee members and advocates learned at that hearing, held in December, that Kissel and Fishbein had appointed Bowen and Cipolli.
Bowen spent 21 years as a correctional officer for the DOC. While working as an officer, he also rose in the ranks as a member of AFSCME Local 391, a correctional staff union, serving as vice president for more than five years.
He retired from the department in July and stepped down as the union’s vice president. Then he transitioned into a role with the union’s executive board, a position he expects to hold until May. As a board member, he continues to field calls from correctional staff who bring grievances to his attention and takes part in monthly meetings where union members discuss and vote on outstanding matters.
This was of notable concern to advocates, given that correctional staff unions opposed the PROTECT Act’s limitations on the use of extreme isolation — despite the federal court’s ruling that the DOC’s use of the practice was unconstitutional. Union representatives also publicly defended the dozens of employees who abused the federally funded hotel pandemic program.
Adding to the concerns about Bowen is the fact that at some point during his tenure with the agency, he or someone else using his Facebook account “liked” another account named “Love My Confederate Ancestors,” a page that routinely posts affectionate memes about the South’s effort during the Civil War to maintain slavery.
To the advocates, the beliefs indicated by Bowen’s Facebook activity could undermine the work of the advisory committee, which partly is to serve the best interests of people under DOC care. Forty-two percent of people incarcerated in Connecticut are Black — more than three times their percentage of the state population. Historians and scholars have consistently linked the disparities in today’s prison system to slavery.
The other appointee, Cipolli, was introduced at the public hearing as Fishbein’s choice. He has worked with the DOC since 2015, having spent most of his time as a correctional officer. While he was an officer, his family grieved the loss of his brother, Ernest, who was killed during an altercation outside of a Wallingford cafe in January 2021. The man convicted of his brother’s killing was recently sentenced to 16 years in state prison.
Cipolli was promoted to correctional counselor trainee in November — the DOC’s initial stepping stone to counselor — where, among other duties, he will spend a year counseling incarcerated people assigned to his caseload, referring people to available services and treatment programs, and touring housing units.
Also within the last year, Cipolli publicly testified against the PROTECT Act, telling legislators that it would undermine the work and expertise of correctional staff.
“Having decisions made about the operations of correctional facilities by officials who’ve never had to walk in our shoes and see the daily routine of a prison is irresponsible,” Cipolli said in a virtual hearing last March. “Rather than forcing new policy on the department, perhaps sitting down with individuals, such as officers, and collaborating would be a better alternative to find a happy medium.”
Advocates are concerned that Cipolli’s current affiliation with the DOC, the killing of his brother by a man who’s currently in department custody and his public testimony against the PROTECT Act is problematic for someone serving on the oversight committee.
The appointment of both men to the committee has shackled the expectations for independent supervision of the agency, though both DOC representatives and the department commissioner dispute any concerns about their presence.
“It was something that needed to be done,” said Bowen, when asked about his appointment to the committee. “We, the union or the DOC, would want some of our people on this panel just so there’s no misinformation put out there. Because you can say whatever you want from the outside looking in, but until you are actually doing the job or walking the walk, you really don’t know what’s going on.”
Bowen said anyone on the committee with ties to the DOC would preserve the integrity of the group. On that front, he also said he’s “100% disassociated” with the “Love My Confederate Ancestors” Facebook account and its messaging.
“I was born and raised right here in Connecticut and my family’s from Ireland, so I have no ties to the Confederacy or the South or anything like that,” Bowen said, also adding that he has “no recollection” of liking the page.
He “unliked” the page after it was brought to his attention by the CT Mirror.
When contacted by the CT Mirror, Cipolli said he wants a spot on the advisory committee to help both correctional staff and incarcerated people. He acknowledged that losing his brother was a devastating experience but said it hasn’t changed him professionally.
Regarding his public testimony against the PROTECT Act, Cipolli said he was concerned the committee would only consist of outsiders. He believes his experience will help “balance the scales,” and if he brings unfair bias to the group, he hopes the other members will help correct that.
“I believe being fair across the board is what this committee should really be focused on, and making sure that if an officer does mess up and does something that he shouldn’t have done, let’s be thorough,” Cipolli said. “And before we throw the book at an inmate, if he did something that he shouldn’t have, let’s make sure that we’re thorough and do a correct investigation and see everything that led up to the events that took place.”
Bowen and Cipolli also received endorsements from DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros, who collaborated with Stop Solitary CT on the PROTECT Act.
“Commissioner Quiros strongly supports the nominations of both John Bowen and John Cipolli. Each brings a wealth of first-hand knowledge of how the correctional system operates,” said Ashley McCarthy, the DOC’s director of external affairs.
“Additionally, both have personal insight into how the system works from the perspective of justice-involved individuals,” McCarthy said. “There is little doubt that the unique and relevant experiences of each highly qualified nominee will assist the advisory committee in thoroughly examining all aspects of issues brought before them.”
The Republicans who appointed them
The appointment of Bowen and Cipolli came as a surprise to the advocates who negotiated the bill, in addition to people appointed to the Correction Advisory Committee.
The PROTECT Act capped the committee at nine members and reserved committee appointment power for the governor and high ranking members of the legislature.
But in the weeks after the PROTECT Act’s passage, a different bill addressing police mental health was also passed. Tacked onto the legislation was the addition of two spots on the advisory committee — increasing the group to 11 members — to be chosen by Kissel and Fishbein.
Kissel, a 16-term Senate Republican, represents Connecticut’s 7th Senate District, where many of the towns house either an active or closed prison. In 2021, he cast the lone Senate vote against a bipartisan bill to end Connecticut’s prison gerrymandering, widely recognized as a discriminatory practice that counts incarcerated people as residents of the towns where their correctional facilities are located.
Fishbein, who was first elected to the House in 2016, represents Wallingford, a city with about 44,000 mostly white residents, according to the U.S. Census. He believes in “less interference in the day-to-day affairs of our law-abiding citizens,” according to his website. He was one of only eight people — out of 39 Judiciary Committee members — who initially voted against the PROTECT Act.
The move granting appointments to Kissel and Fishbein was approved by Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. It came after House Republicans questioned why the two highest-ranking Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were excluded, Stafstrom said.
So he opted to accommodate them through the police mental health bill and not through the PROTECT Act, because doing the opposite would have slowed the process and “very likely” killed the bill during the short legislative session.
“Overall, the committee should have sort of a broad voice,” Stafstrom said about the advisory panel. “Committees are most effective when they bring together stakeholders from often wildly different perspectives, who then come to consensus, or a resolution or recommendations on policy changes. Certainly the prison reform advocates have had quite a bit of representation on this committee.”
The amendment addressed House Republicans’ concerns and also mandated that the two new committee appointees be, respectively, an expert in corrections and a victim of a violent crime. As such, Kissel selected Bowen, the recently retired correction officer, while Fishbein chose Cipolli, whose brother was killed.
But Kissel’s expert in corrections criteria was already covered under the original bill, as it was a requirement for one of the governor’s three appointments, former DOC commissioner Scott Semple.
And Fishbein’s choice wasn’t just limited to a victim of a violent crime. He — according to the legislation — could have appointed a victim of a violent crime, a person who advocates for victims’ rights, or an attorney who has represented a victim of a violent crime.
Neither Fishbein nor Kissel was handcuffed to an appointment of someone currently affiliated with the DOC, but each made that choice.
Kissel said conversations about Bowen having a conflict of interest on the committee are “based on speculation,” and that he believes the committee will have more balance with correctional officers on it. He also said he was unaware of Bowen’s social media activity.
“I don’t have any concerns with his ability to be an outstanding member of this organization,” Kissel said. “My nominee is not there as a representative of the Department of Correction. He’s there as an individual whose career was within the Department of Correction.”
Fishbein, in an emailed response to questions from the CT Mirror, reiterated the law’s requirement that his selection be a victim of a violent crime, despite the fact that he had two additional options to choose from. He also clarified how he and Kissel were given the power to make appointments to the advisory committee.
“The original language gave the Chairs of the Judiciary Committee appointments to this body, but did not provide for corresponding appointments by Senator Kissel and I (who are the other members of Committee leadership). It was represented as an innocent omission,” Fishbein said.
“The best I can say is that (at least in my mind) fairness and equality are of great importance whenever the legislature creates such committees,” he said.
Calls for oversight
Efforts to establish independent oversight of state prisons and jails are happening across the country.
Amid “an urgent need to provide transparency and accountability of Arizona’s corrections system,” Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs recently issued an executive order to form an oversight committee, which will “facilitate the collection and public disclosure of unbiased and accurate information.” Mississippi legislators are also pushing for the creation of an oversight committee. If the effort is successful, “No Mississippi Department of Corrections employee or family members of a Mississippi Department of Corrections employee” would serve on it.
Walker of New Haven has filed the only legislation in Connecticut thus far that pertains to the Correction Advisory Committee’s membership and procedures. Though Walker still hasn’t submitted any specific bill language, at least one other lawmaker, Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Easton, is ready to address the presence of the two DOC people on the committee.
“I don’t want to be adversarial; I want to be transparent. They’re just not appropriate for the committee,” Hughes said about Bowen and Cipolli. “Putting DOC members on an oversight committee meant to create oversight of the DOC is such an indictment on the process and goes against the spirit of the PROTECT Act.”
The committee is expected to hold its first meeting in February and, no later than 10 days after that gathering, each member will be required to “take an oath of office to diligently and honestly administer the affairs of said committee.”
With a strong possibility that the DOC representatives remain on the committee, McGraw — the criminal justice advocate who’s on the panel — said he will continue to speak up for people behind bars.
“Anybody that subscribes to racist organizations … systems that discriminate and dehumanize Black and brown people, or people as a whole, should never be a part of a committee that’s supposed to be helping people,” said McGraw, who is Black. “I’m not here for the optics. I’m hoping that we’re gonna get down to work and we’re going to do serious stuff. Because I know how important it is for those individuals that are inside to have that voice on the outside.”
For Fair, arguably the biggest champion of the PROTECT Act, what’s taken place over the last several months is not unfamiliar. It’s all part of the devious maneuvering that she’s grown accustomed to seeing in Connecticut, she said.
“You probably can’t do anything at this point but amend the bill and put it back the way it was signed into law,” Fair said. “That’s why we need legislative oversight. Because when we, the public, come in and get something voted on and passed, we have to know that these underhanded things are not going to come back and unravel everything.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the charge of the person who killed John Cipolli’s brother. He was convicted of manslaughter, not murder.