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Connecticut prison advocates oppose new DOC oversight panel appointments

Flickr Creative Common
The Danbury Federal

The new Correction Advisory Committee was cause for celebration, until advocates learned of two new appointments to the 11-member board. They say the appointees have close ties to the Department of Correction — the organization that the committee is expected to oversee impartially.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jaden Edison to discuss his article, “New DOC oversight panel appointments alarm advocates,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello Jaden, you say advocates have some concerns about two people appointed to the state's 11-member Correction Advisory Committee. Why do they have concerns about these two people?

JE: So the Protect Act essentially was the bill that Stop Solitary CT, a statewide campaign pushing for the ending of inhumane treatment in correctional facilities across the state, fought for. For years, they have been pushing for a bill that would essentially limit the use of solitary confinement and/or extreme isolation in prisons. You know, I think it's a contested term as to whether Connecticut uses solitary, etc. But nonetheless, the use of extreme isolation in prisons.

Part of that bill was the creation of the Correction Advisory Committee, which served as a sort of independent overseer at the Department of Correction. And so the concern among the advocates now has to do with the fact that Republicans, via an amendment to the bill that virtually no one was really paying attention to, essentially added two appointments by two Republicans, who have close ties with the Department of Correction.

One who currently works as a part of the DOC, most recently was a correctional officer before he was promoted to a correctional counselor trainee, John Cipolli. And then John Bowen, who retired from the department as a decade's long correctional officer in July, but still serves on the executive board of the correctional staff union, which we know is vigorously going to defend its employees and its staff, as it has, especially more recently. That's one of the concerns is that this committee that was created as the independent oversight effort over the DOC, now has two people tied to the DOC sitting on that, essentially undermining any attempt at oversight.

WSHU: And there's also an added angle to one of them. His brother was killed in 2021. And the person responsible for that is currently incarcerated.

JE: Right. I think the first layer was the fact that they're both closely tied to the DOC. But as you mentioned, John Cipolli, his brother was killed in 2021. And yes, the person who is responsible for the killing was convicted to 16 years in state prison for manslaughter. So he's currently housed at Garner Correctional Facility. And so that raises all kinds of concerns for advocates because you have someone who's essentially on a prison oversight committee, who is, directly part of the statute — the appointment was made because the statute said that you could appoint a victim of a violent crime, which opened the door for this to happen, essentially. But nonetheless, people are concerned.

And then for John Bowin, the added layer of that is some really questionable social media activity. I think the most prominent one that folks have been concerned about was essentially, on Facebook, he had “liked” an organizational account under the name of “Love my Confederate Ancestors,” which is a peculiar page that posts routinely affectionate pro-confederacy posts. So just some grave concern, about these two people in their activities outside of their day jobs, in addition to the actual fact that they are still tied with the Department of Correction.

WSHU: Now, I know John Kissel represents Enfield. And that's the location of several correctional facilities in his district. In fact, I think the largest correctional facility in Connecticut is in his district. So there is an interest he has in a constituency that he's trying to represent by having someone with corrections involved in this oversight. That person might have a better understanding of what's going on in the system, right?

JE: Absolutely. I was talking to John Bowing, this isn't a detail actually in the story, but I thought it was fascinating. He told me, Senator Kissel, he's a drive around the corner from the union office. So I mean, that kind of just kind of exemplifies the connection that Senator Kissel has to union members. And also, as you mentioned, his constituency largely consists of people who live in towns that house active or closed prisons. And so I think that's also a bigger concern.

But I do want to note that the way in which Senator Kissel and Representative Fishbein were able to obtain appointments is just as big of a part of this story as the actual appointment. The Protect Act in and of itself, which limited the use of extreme isolation and prisons and created the Correction Advisory Committee, the law outlined initially only non-members on that committee; there were only supposed to be nine members appointed by higher ranking members of the legislature in addition to the governor. And so what happened was that there was an amendment made to an unrelated bill about police mental health that was signed by the governor in the weeks after. And what happened was they made an amendment — it was very subtle. If you look at the bill it was kind of tacked on to the last line of that bill, there was an amendment made to it that essentially added two more appointments to that advisory committee, opening the door for a Senator Kissel and Representative Fishbein to have appointments there.

And you add another layer to that, nobody knew about it essentially, even the people who were appointed to the committee, didn't even recognize that until the December public hearing, which was held far after. Most people I spoke with on this matter, had no clue or they noticed at the onset of the meeting and thought they had some kind of misunderstanding of what the law had actually said.

WSHU: Now, there's some action being taken right now. I see that Toni Walker, a Democrat from New Haven, who's co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, filed a bill that would amend the membership. Could you tell us about that?

JE: Yeah. So it's notable, Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, her reputation in the legislature is of importance here. Veteran lawmaker, has been around for a long time, and is a respected colleague within the legislature. Co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, which has a considerable amount of power over budgets and things of that nature. She's also a respected member of the Judiciary Committee.

And so representative Walker has filed a bill that essentially would, "address the makeup and procedures of the Correction Advisory Committee." But it's important to note that it's unclear exactly specifically what she wants to accomplish as a justice shell bill. And from my understanding, she's right now kind of reluctant to speak on the situation. We reached out to her, the Mirror reached out to her several times and got no response to requests to comment. And, you know, from what I'm told, she's sort of wanting to kind of do her work behind the scenes and kind of iron things out before she speaks out on it.

It is a very interesting development there. But I think just the fact that Rep. Walker has taken up to follow this bill tells you that at least one prominent member of the legislature has noticed and at least wants to address it in some capacity, we just don't know exactly what that will look like.

WSHU: So basically, there's some action likely to be taken in this legislative session to try and correct that. And right now, we don't know how that's gonna play out.

JE: Exactly. But one of the things that's interesting, and I truly believe there may be another story to be done that kind of dives into, is the work of this committee, and what it does, et cetera, et cetera. But one thing I will note is that in my conversations with lawmakers in the judiciary, Representative Stafstrom who's co-chair of the Judiciary and a Democrat from Bridgeport, and then obviously a champion of justice reform. and Senator Gary Winfield of New Haven, they both were of the impression of, let's see how this plays out first, like I understand the advocates are concerned. But as a legislature, we always have the power to go back and revisit exactly what it is if something goes wrong, or something's not working, we're afforded that power to be able to revisit it, which isn't necessarily something that the advocates are excited about They think we shouldn't have to wait until something goes wrong, this shouldn't have happened to begin with.

I should also mention that in my conversation with Senator Winfield, I think he more so had a problem with the potential that you have a member of the committee who subscribes to messages of the Confederacy, as John Bowen presumably had. He denies doing so intentionally. But the possibility that that is something that actually is a real thing, I think Senator Winfield was more concerned about that. But largely, the presence of two DOC people on there, I think legislators are kind of wondering, taking a wait and see approach.

WSHU: One of the big issues that they've been dealing with is how the Department of Corrections handled the COVID pandemic. Have they started working on that? What's going on as far as that's concerned?

JE: There's a few things with the Department of Correction. I mean, this is an agency that has routinely, especially more recently, tied into wrongdoing. I recently attended a week-long federal trial for Richard Reynolds, who is incarcerated. He has to serve in a life sentence. He was incarcerated at Northern Correctional, which was shut down in the last couple of years. And a federal judge and jury have ruled that the DOC violated his 14th amendment rights by leaving him confined to his cell for 22 hours a day, subjecting him to strip searches when he came out, and limiting visitation times, all these things. And all of this in a cell that the judge said was the size of a parking space.

And then, in addition to that, The Mirror became aware of a state audit that showed that dozens of DOC correctional officers had abused the federal pandemic program created to house workers in hotels who were affected by COVID. And then you add on a layer of what you just mentioned, the lack of transparency around what was happening inside our jails and prisons at the height of the pandemic in particular. And so I think the DOC is an agency that typically has been kind of exempt from public scrutiny without the work of the advocates, who are really doing this kind of grassroots activism. I mean, there isn't honestly much that we would know about what's going on behind closed doors without the activists. I mean, obviously, there's communication with folks who are incarcerated, but that communication can be delayed in terms of having to send mail in and out.

So I think there's a lot more to be desired in terms of transparency when it comes to the DOC. And I think that's a big part of why advocates were really pushing for independent oversight of the DOC because from their understanding, the DOC had shown that it couldn't police itself and these major issues had large implications for the people who are incarcerated.

WSHU: So they champion this Protect Act, it gets passed. They're happy it has been passed. But now the implementation is the issue.

JE: Exactly. The way I've always viewed it in layman's terms is, you take two steps forward, and then you gotta take a step back. Advocates are feeling like they worked so hard, the Protect Act, survived, it was vetoed the year prior by Governor Ned Lamont. And so they came back this year, the DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros and Barbara Fair from Stop Solidary CT. They both collaborated, they sat in a room and hashed out this bill for hours, trying to come to some kind of consensus on what would actually happen, and then they agreed upon this bill. And it just seems like, at least from the perspective of advocates is, they did all this work just for an amendment that nobody knew about until the last minute came and kind of unraveled some of the things that they thought were the most concrete and the most solid things within the act that kind of gave it the muscle that they were looking for.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.