Is there a crisis in the Department of Corrections as they try to contain hundreds of COVID-19 cases with a shrinking staff?
It seems now that mental health concerns are mounting as an issue as well.
State senator Cathy Osten thinks it's time to do something about that. The Democrat from Sprague was also a longtime DOC employee.
NBC Connecticut's Mike Hydeck spoke with her about the issue.
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Mike: "Several news reports say that prison staffing has been such a problem that in some cases, prisoners are having to spend 23 hours a day in their cells. It's leading to things like panic attacks and suicide attempts. Is that your understanding as well, and what can we do about it?"
Osten: "Well, relative to panic attacks and suicide attempts, I've not heard that directly. But I know that there are many people that are incarcerated in our prisons that are chronically mentally ill and quite frankly, without enough support in the communities, [people] end up being incarcerated because there virtually is no other place for them to go."
Mike: "I'm reading many reports that they're not getting time out of their cells, they're not getting recreation time or enough shower time or time to call their families or even meet with their attorneys. Is there a staffing problem in Connecticut's prisons?"
Osten: "They're in all of our congregate facilities, whether it's nursing homes or group homes or prisons, the facts are that we don't have enough staff across the board, because of the complications of COVID, and the pressure that's been put on people working in any of the congregate settings around the state. That is, quite frankly, a problem. Yes."
Mike: "So it seems to be a problem on both sides of the equation. If you have fewer staff to deal with all those inmates, the staff gets stressed out. They could have mental concerns as well, then you have the people who are incarcerated who can't get out of their cells, this is a big problem. What's the first step we can do to try to solve it?"
Osten: "So there's a number of different steps that we can do. About four or five years ago, I started putting a bill in the judiciary committee to assess the number of inmates that were chronically mentally ill knowing that the numbers had risen since we closed our state psychiatric facilities. Now, I'm not interested in reopening our state psychiatric facilities, but closing them came with the promise that we would have both supportive housing and supportive services around the state. Relative to staff, there is a program in the Department of Correction right now that we actually codified the state funding in the last budget cycle called high tech. And it's a program to deal with the stress for staff because there has long been a problem with stress on staff in the Department of Corrections. If you look at the numbers across the state and across this country, the actuarial rate of the lifespan of a correctional officer is in the 50s, generally towards the high end of the 50s, or the low end of the 60s. That's unacceptable, also. So we need to make sure that we're protecting our staff, making sure that that they have a successful life after they retire from corrections. But we also need to make sure that the people that were incarcerated are not there because of a chronic mental illness that has not been both identified, and they have not been provided with the services before they end up within the prison system."
Mike: "So it sounds like a two-fold problem. One, we need to recruit more people to work in the Department of Corrections and two, we need to recruit more staff to help with mental health issues. And we need, as we know, mental health professionals, probably in many different areas of Connecticut helping schools, helping out as we're talking about now prisons as well. How do we recruit both of these professionals?"
Osten: "Well, the legislature provided the executive branch with about $70 million in training dollars so that they could look at these areas and say, 'what can we do to make sure that we have enough social workers trained, make sure that we have enough APRNs that work with people with psychiatric disabilities?' So we look at psychiatrists and psychologists to make sure that we have enough here in the state. So using some of that rather large amount that we gave to the executive branch, some of that should be used to train more people in the field of mental health services, to provide everybody with enough people across the spectrum from our schools, through our prisons, and any place else that we need, licensed clinical social workers, anybody else that can help out with this clear problem that we have across every spectrum."
Mike: "Last question, you're the vice chair of public safety. You're the chair of appropriations, you really have a front row seat to both of these problems. What's step one on trying to get something done this session? Even though it's a shortened session, can we make change in a shortened session?"
Osten: "We can, and I'm actually the chair of public safety now so I get to sit in on on all the screenings. We are doing a mental health forum for law enforcement coming up next week. We had a bill in last year, we want to make sure that gets over the finish line this year. We think that we can do that, make sure that we were addressing many of the issues relative to law enforcement, relative to mental health in the Department of Corrections. The bill that I will have in front of Judiciary will look at a number of different things to make sure that we're finding out we did do one, very concise and small look at the number of people that are chronically mentally ill and our prison system and the numbers they came up with were very disturbing. 80% of female inmates were considered chronically mentally ill, and 28% of male inmates were considered chronically mentally ill. That was done by the sentencing commission. So we need to have a robust report that's done that will bring data back to the appropriations committee so that we can make sure that we provide the staffing and the dollars for those staffing in the Department of Corrections to make sure we're addressing this but most importantly, let's provide people with the resources before they ever get in the Department of Correction so that they can live successfully in the communities where they reside right now. So those are things that we can do."