Perhaps it takes economic hard times to do what the machinery of justice is incapable of accomplishing: putting the breaks on the seemingly unstoppable tendency to declare ever broader classes of conduct a crime. If so, I welcome the current recession.
Michael Lawlor spoke Friday at a symposium on law and mental health issues attended by well over 100 people at the University of Connecticut School of Law. The senior spokesman for the Malloy administration on prison and criminal justice issues announced that the governor has plans to close another prison or two in the state. When asked which prisons, Lawlor refused to answer, perhaps hoping to stave off until the last possible moment the special pleading that communities grown dependent on the prison-industrial complex in their own backyards will no doubt raise when the chattel factories within their borders are finally closed.
The state’s prison population is at its lowest point in the past ten years, with 17,650 persons imprisoned. That’s a substantial decline from the all time high in 2008, when 19,894 people were imprisoned in the mad rush to nail down every conceivable thing that could go bump in the night after the brutal home invasion in Cheshire that decimated the Petit family. As a result of this decline, the state has already shut down the Webster Correctional Institution in Cheshire. J.B. Gates Correctional Institution in Eastern Connecticut could is next on the chopping block and will be closed on June 1.
Webster housed 220 inmates when it closed its doors for keeps in January 2010. Gates now houses about 700 people. There’s plenty more fat in the prison system, or so it seems.
Those institutions not targeted for closing: the New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford Community Correctional Institutions. While keeping facilities open near the communities whose inmates they serve is a laudable goal, the fact remains, these three institutions remain the eyesores of the correctional system. I shudder whenever a client of mine is remanded to the care of one of these institutions.
Lawlor suggested that far more draconian cuts may be in order.
The governor’s current budget is based on a premise that state employee unions will be persuaded to make concessions valuing $1 billion in current contract talks. If these give backs aren’t forthcoming, the governor will be forced to make drastic cuts in existing departments. The state’s largest employer is, surprise, surprise, the Department of Correction. We currently spend more imprisoning people than we do on higher education.
Prison should not a quick fix for deviance, treatment of the mentally ill, or housing what Scrooge once referred to as the "surplus population." Twenty percent of inmates in our prisons have been diagnosed with serious mental illness. Incarcerating people because they are ill is itself a sickness.
Perhaps it’s time to think long and hard about what crimes really require incarceration. Use of narcotics? Not. Status offenses such as statutory rape between consenting young people close in age? Not. Internet enticement of police officers pretending to be minors? Not. And when prison is called for, what precept of justice requires a mandatory minimum prison sentence?
There are some dangerous men and women locked up in Connecticut prisons. But far greater than the sum of those posing a danger are the sick, the incapable and the different. Opening the prison doors to release these folks back into the community won’t cure anyone. Neither will it compel the deviant to march in orthodox lockstep with his neighbors. But it will drive the scent of cruelty a little farther off shore. That might be the silver lining on the dark cloud currently hanging over the state.