38. The Prison

38. The Prison

(a brief history of Garner Correctional Institution)

Inmates at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield, Connecticut had been passing around fliers all week, warning each other not to go to the cafeteria on the 25th. They were sick and tired of the prison’s lousy food, and they were going to protest.

It was sometime between 6am and 7am on that Tuesday morning when the prison’s guards noticed something was going on: there were only a handful of inmates entering the cafeteria when breakfast was called. Instead of the usual rush, most of the prisoners were gathering in “the circle” outside — an open area in the prison yard with several adjacent buildings — and a group that seemed like the leaders of the strike were all seated at picnic tables there, heckling the few inmates who passed by them on the way to get food. The crowd around the tables was growing.

Two guards headed over to try and contain the situation. Someone must have called it in on the radio at the same time, because as they approached the picnic tables, an announcement suddenly came over the PA speakers, mounted on poles high around the circle:

INMATES CLEAR THE YARD

The prisoners all stood from their picnic tables, looking ready to fight. The two guards froze. They were surrounded, completely outnumbered. One of them radioed, and told dispatch not to broadcast any more orders. Things were getting dangerous.

INMATES CLEAR THE YARD

The mass of prisoners started to “bump” the guards to-and-fro. The guards were unarmed. More and more inmates were coming out of the rec buildings, over three hundred felons now marching around the circle and shouting. Order hung by a thread.

INMATES CLEAR THE YARD

Chaos. Suddenly rocks were being thrown, and fists were flying. Someone set a fire. The two guards were injured, but managed to escape the yard, barely, with their lives — locking the heavy steel door behind them, and leaving the prisoners to run rampant in the circle.

The rioters burned down the cafeteria. Then they burned the gymnasium, too, and looted the storage areas. A group of inmates unfurled a homemade banner in the yard, with a message that “demanded media coverage,” as the state prosecutors would later say. Instead, after a few hours of mayhem, armored officers with the Connecticut Department of Corrections’ Emergency Response Team breached the yard, and subdued the rioters with tear gas and batons.

It was June 25, 1990, and once the damages were all tallied, this day of chaos at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution would emerge as the most expensive prison riot in Connecticut history.

* * *

The Carl Robinson riot was just one in a series of violent incidents that unfolded across Connecticut’s correctional system in the span of only a few years’ time; at another prison, in Enfield, an illicit drug deal between inmates (a bag of marijuana for a carton of cigarettes) went bad, and ended up sparking a gang war. Next door at at Osborn Correctional, a guard tried to seize a prisoner’s stolen radio, took a punch to the face instead, and within minutes, there was a melee; hundreds of prisoners wielded weapons made out of boards they had ripped from the prison’s mini-golf course, while other inmates raided the prison’s offices, smashing typewriters and setting fire to counselors’ records.

The prisons that lost control all had something in common: they were low-security or middle-security facilities, with “dormitory” style setups. These sorts of prisons had been designed with few traditional “cells,” and no barred doors with which to seal off sections of the facility. The inmates all stayed in shared dormitories, and during the day were generally free to wander the prison grounds as they pleased. “Basically, the dorms are just like the street, except nobody has got any guns — or at least not any guns that I saw,” said one Carl Robinson inmate to the Hartford Courant.

It was no accident that the prisons had been built that way: it was the cheapest design there was. Like nearly every state in the union, Connecticut’s prison population had started growing in the late 1970’s, when the “War on Drugs” starting driving more arrests, a trend exacerbated by the enactment of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. Over the course of the 1980s, the number of prisoners in the state doubled. In fact, by 1990, every single prison in Connecticut was overcrowded, filled to at least 110% capacity. And it was likely no coincidence that Connecticut’s correctional system had the highest rate of inmate injuries in the entire country — as well as the highest rate of assaults on guards, per inmate. Things were bad, and getting worse.

In response to this unrest, the Governor signed a new billion-dollar spending plan in 1987, making the construction of a new, higher-security prison an immediate priority.

It was soon after that when residents of Newtown were sighting state inspectors down at the banks of the Pootatuck again, looking for the best spot to build their new state prison. The town pushed back, of course, but they had little chance against Connecticut, and the rising tide of incarceration. A small town’s lawsuit — and a defiant first selectman digging a ditch — could not hold back the flood.

* * *

When construction was completed, the layout of Newtown’s new prison stood as a reflection of the lessons learned at Carl Robinson: its “yard” was contained, with no isolated structures. It was surrounded by a honeycomb of eight three-story cell blocks (“housing pods”), and then a high outer fence, topped with spirals of razor wire. The interior of each of the housing pods was lined with 51 cells, 8 x 10 feet each, most of them designed to hold two prisoners apiece. Then, each cell block was completely enclosed by security checkpoints and steel doors (which could be controlled remotely from a security station) in order to contain any potential incidents, before they could build into something greater. (For recreation, most of the pods had a small common area in the center, where the sound of sneakers squeaking could be heard during inmate basketball games when rec time came around.)

A sign out on Nunnawauk Road — just past the old mental institution, where Wasserman Way branched south — marked the entrance, with bold, blue institutional lettering cast against a plain, concrete slab: WARD A. GARNER CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION.

The Department of Corrections had named the new institution after a legendary warden from a prison long ago; from 1911 to 1918 Ward Garner had been in charge of Connecticut State Prison in Westerfield, where he was respected by inmates for having mercifully lifted the ban on talking during meals — and on one Christmas in 1914, for allowing the first viewing of a motion picture within the prison’s walls.

For many passers-by, the sign on Nunnawauk Road was the only way they would even know there was a prison there — except on a clear winter day, when the coils of razor-wire could just be seen through the bare hickory trees that lined the southern path into Newtown.

CHAOS

Garner Correctional Institution opened on November 17, 1992. A convoy of secured buses full of prisoners, flanked by armed guards, came streaming down I-84, and through Fairfield Hills to their new home. One by one, the cells were filled, and the heavy steel doors swung shut.

Within the first year, the staff at Garner were in open revolt; guards were seen picketing out on Nunnawauk Road, in protest of what they said was a string of assaults perpetrated by inmates. One morning in July 1993, roll-call even had to be delayed by 15 minutes due to the protests; as a consequence, six probation officers were fired, and 30 permanent officers were given 10-day suspensions without pay; at a place like Garner, security lapses had to be taken very, very seriously.

Officials at the Department of Corrections did not refute that Garner was a dangerous place — part of the problem was that the staff at Garner were mostly new to the profession, while most of the inmates had been in Connecticut’s prison system for years and years. “It’s not a matter of Garner being different,” a DOC rep told the Hartford Courant. “Inmates assault people. They don’t check their criminality at the door… that’s what we live with. It’s a dangerous job.”

Soon, the guards at Garner realized there was actually more to it: when the riot-plagued dormitory-style prisons in Enfield had been advised that a new prison was opening to accept some of their overflowing inmate population, “They took a lot of the troublemakers and they shipped them off to Garner.” From day one, Newtown’s prison was home to the worst of the worst.

* * *

Shortly before 7:00pm on the evening of April 21, 1993, around two dozen members of an all-black prison gang out of Hartford, called “20-Love,” were gathered in the open area at the center of Cell Block B. At the first moment the guards weren’t looking, someone gave a signal, and in a flash, a mass of inmates jumped the members of 20-Love, inflicting severe injuries on all of them. Guards rushed to contain the fight, but then they were beaten back, as nearly 100 inmates streamed out of 51 open cells, wielding shivs and weighted socks.

Outnumbered, the guards retreated, and sealed off Cell Block B. Through an unbreakable glass window set into the steel door, they watched the mayhem unfold: the inmates dragged their mattresses into the center of the pod and set them ablaze, while others smashed computer consoles. Some convicts sought out rivals, and settled old grudges, seizing the opportunity while disorder reigned.

Outside the walls, a ranger at Pootatuck Game Preserve — a hunting club that owned a vast tract of land stretching almost up to Garner’s outer fence — got a sense of what was going on in the sealed-off cell block, as he patrolled his hunting grounds in the setting sunlight. “From the sounds I heard, people were getting hurt pretty badly,” he would tell the New York Times. “Let’s put it this way, they weren’t playing basketball.”

Newtown residents who lived near the prison (many of whom had been vocally worried about its presence in their backyard), on their way home that evening, passed by a large, illuminated highway sign on Nunnawauk Road, its array of light bulbs flashing an emergency message: “TROOP A REPORTS A RIOT IS IN PROGRESS AT GARNER CORRECTIONAL CENTER.”

Around 7:30pm, those residents who were looking out their windows could see a convoy of ambulances and police cruisers streaming through Fairfield Hills on the way to the prison, their blaring sirens rattling the windows of the old brick hospital, while a column of smoke rose from behind the prison’s walls, bathed in red-and-blue by the emergency vehicles’ flashing lights. There were 30 officers on the Newtown Police Department’s roll call that evening, and before the night was through, 29 of them were summoned to Garner Prison; they left one of the younger officers behind to operate the switchboard, relaying orders in between answering phone calls, from journalists and worried townspeople alike.

The next morning, negotiations between the prisoners and the Department of Corrections were still “ongoing,” according to the Times. Meanwhile, two van-loads of officers in riot gear from the DOC’s Emergency Response Team were arriving on-scene. The state gave up on negotiations, and with a rain of teargas and baton blows, the riot was quelled, and order was restored to Garner Prison. In all, twenty inmates and three guards had to be taken to Danbury Hospital. And there was significant damage to Cell Block B; the cost of repairs at Garner reached nearly a million dollars.

After the riot, procedures at Garner changed. Instead of unlocking all 51 cells in a given block during rec or mealtimes, only half would be open at any given time. Connecticut also issued beepers to 54 “front line” residents in town — the ones who lived closest to the prison — so that the state could notify them immediately if anything went wrong again.

Not everyone’s fears were assuaged; “I’m not surprised that this has happened, and I think it’s just the beginning,” one of the homeowners told the Times. For years, she had seen the patients wandering away from Fairfield Hills in the night, and now she envisioned a darker future: “We’ve got a Level 4 prison here in this small town, and one of these days someone is going to escape, and even these beepers won’t keep us safe.”

* * *

Five months after order was restored, on the evening of August 31, a regularly scheduled bell rang over the yard, signifying the end of evening rec-time. Per procedure, 90 prisoners were expected to line up in their khaki uniforms, to be taken back to their housing pods — except, when the corrections officers did head-count, they only came up with 88.

Immediately, the alarm went up, and every inmate was shut in their cell. The facility went into lockdown, and every inch was searched; eventually, the guards found that the two missing inmates had somehow climbed over a 25-foot wall, and “cut their way through a horizontal chain-link fence,” before escaping into the night.

Outside, in the surrounding neighborhoods, 54 households suddenly heard their beepers go off.

A swarm of flashlights fanned out on foot in all directions from Garner Prison, and into every shuttered building in Fairfield Hills. Spotlights lit up the meadows, and helicopter teams crisscrossed over the forests. State troopers went door-to-door in the neighborhood, telling residents to lock up and close their windows.

Descriptions of the two fugitives were broadcast to every law enforcer in Fairfield County; the first escapee was a 23-year-old from Georgia, who was three years into his five-year stint for third-degree burglary; they found him just two and half hours after the escape, hiding in the woods less than a mile from the prison’s walls. But the second prisoner had managed to make his way to the town center, where he stole a car — and there, the searchers lost the trail. The alarm was eventually lifted, and Newtown was advised to be on the lookout for the 35-year-old male, but to not approach him under any circumstances — the man was serving a sentence for armed robbery, and attempted murder of a police officer.

* * *

Two weeks later, after a trail of reported crimes led the US Marshals east out of Newtown, a search warrant was served at a home in New Haven, and officers took the fugitive back to Garner in shackles. The fear in the village eased, but resentment lingered.

TRANQUILITY

By the first anniversary of Garner opening, Newtown was already fed up. Responding to their grievances, the Commissioner of Corrections, the highest office in the state’s prison administration, personally came to the meeting house to try and explain why his policies weren’t tougher on the inmate population. “If you hate too much, you run the risk of becoming like what you fear and what you hate,” he said, assuring them that it just took some time to “get used to” having a prison in town.

A New York Times reporter sitting in the pews observed, “Many people here are enraged and fearful about the violent tensions boxed up in their midst.”

One resident stood to rebut the commissioner. “This is not ‘getting used to’ a facility, this is getting terrorized by a facility,” she said, glaring at him. “The protection of the individual citizen has got to come above and before the rights of the criminal.” As the woman sat back down, many at the meeting house applauded.

The commissioner tried to ease them by talking about some of the new programs they were developing at Garner. One was called “close custody,” and they were hoping it might finally get the state’s prison gangs under control: it meant that whenever a “gang incident” assault occurred, both the perpetrator of the attack and the gang leader who ordered it (if he could be identified) would be moved to isolated cells, in separate units. If necessary, they would send them to a different prison entirely, just to weaken the gang’s structure. Early results looked promising; the commissioner called it “cutting the head off the snake.” And as for the environment in the prison being too soft, he argued, “If you get the same thing by incentive [as with force], if you get it without hostility — you tell me which of those is more secure and safe.”

* * *

Thirteen months later, he was unemployed. It was an election year in Connecticut, and the state’s new Governor had run on a platform of “get tough on crime.” Firing the commissioner was one of the first things he did.

Garner got a new warden, too — one who summed up the changes in store for the inmates who were gang members: “It’s all over.”

It turned out that the ousted commissioner’s “close custody” program had indeed seen some promising results at Garner, but there was only one problem: sending the offenders to solitary cells meant that as the program grew, there were fewer and fewer two-person cells in the prison. Capacity dropped. And besides, the new warden explained, solitary confinement in general seemed to be losing its effectiveness on the worst prisoners: “These guys feed on it. When they get out, they wear their time as a badge of honor.” So the new iteration of the system would take a different approach.

Starting in 1995, Cell Block D became the exclusive domain of Garner’s close custody inmates. It was a different world, within the prison: all inmates wore canary yellow jumpsuits, and were locked in their cells for 23 hours a day — always with a cellmate. In the first phase, their cellmate would be a member of the same gang that they had claimed, to ensure safety. Then, not only would they have to obey all of the rules, they would have to attend counseling workshops with the other D Block inmates, and perform custodial work throughout the prison, mopping the floor in the yellow jumpsuit in front of the regular mates. If they could do it and not act out, eventually they would have a chance to escape — back into the old Garner. “In the past, the only thing we ever expected inmates to do was their time,” the warden said. “If they didn’t want to go to school, they didn’t have to. If they didn’t want to work, they didn’t have to. The system wasn’t based on reality, where everyone else has to get up and go to work every day.” Now, work and good behavior would be the only way to make it to phase two.

Phase two lasted three months, and it only came when room was available outside Cell Block D. When a bed came up, the prison’s counselors, and the warden, determined who was chosen to go back out into the general population, in their normal khaki uniform, for a trial run: they would have their old friends back, and more time outside the cell. The biggest difference of all, though, was that their phase two cellmate would always be from a different gang — another prisoner who had graduated from phase one. Rooming peacefully with an adversary: that would be the real test. They would also be let out of their cell more frequently — but assigned to 12-man squads, like a class at school. The same group would eat, study, and exercise together. Any fights or any acting out, and they would be sent right back to Cell Block D, and the yellow jumpsuit. But if they kept progressing, eventually they could make it out of close custody, and even to one of the old dormitory-style prisons. Away from Garner.

The corrections officers in Newtown were appreciative of the changes. “Staff should have a reasonable expectation that they’ll leave at the end of the day looking pretty much like they did when they came in,” the warden said in 1996. “Since this program began, you haven’t heard about riots in our prisons. We’ve gone through the longest period of tranquility in a long while.” It went so well, in fact, that Connecticut started sending all of their “security threat” gang members to Garner; they became the prison’s specialty.

* * *

As the years went on, Garner would take even more freedoms from the inmates in the yellow jumpsuits: the staff began monitoring all of their phone calls, and opening their mail. When Connecticut’s branch of the ACLU found out, the organization vowed to take the state to court, arguing, “Even inmates in prison have certain constitutional rights” — but the warden said Garner had no plans to curtail the system. It had cost the state $400,000, and in fact had already resulted in several arrests, well outside the prison’s walls. And once an inmate made it out of close custody, this scrap of privacy would be restored to them. (The courts eventually sided with the warden.)

Garner became the showcase prison for close custody programs, and staff from facilities around the country came to study how it functioned. But the state’s DOC commissioner cautioned that they were still keeping a close eye on the once-notorious facility: “We are breathing a sigh of relief, but we know that’s when we can become vulnerable again.”

* * *

On November 3, 1997, guards responded to a loud disturbance in Cell Block D. It sounded like a fight between two cellmates. The guards came running, and as they worked to unlock the cell door, they saw one of the prisoners inside, shouting from behind the bars with blood on his yellow jumpsuit: “Get me the fuck out of here!”

The guards pulled him out and handcuffed him; his cellmate was sprawled on the floor, strangled to death in the bloody altercation. It turned out, one of the two inmates was a member of the Latin Kings, and the other was in The Nation; the staff put them in the same cell thinking that the two gangs were allies, but they were wrong.

ECHOES

Just before the turn of the millennium, Connecticut’s Department of Corrections announced that Garner would no longer house the close custody program (which would now be moved to one of the older prisons). This wasn’t any fault of Garner’s; the program was still considered a success. But Garner was also the state’s most modern high-security facility, its most advanced tool. And by 1999, the DOC recognized that the challenge of dealing with prison gangs had been surpassed by another, even more urgent trend in the inmate population: violent offenders who were diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Such prisoners were filling cells all over the state, and over the next four years, they would become Garner’s new “specialty.”

From the start, the transition was a challenge, and often became violent. In 1999, a paranoid schizophrenic inmate, two days after being taken off of his anti-psychotic medication, got into a brawl with a member of the Latin Kings. Three guards were injured breaking up the fight, which was caught on Garner’s security cameras.

The tape showed what followed: at least eight guards dragging the schizophrenic inmate to a separate room, to be strip-searched. He fights back. They overwhelm him, pinning him down to be shackled. He vomits, and then loses consciousness. He never wakes up. “He was assaulting a staff member and other staff responded and were in the process of securing him against further injuring this other staff member,” a spokesman from the Department of Corrections described the footage, in his defense of the guards. The medical examiner ruled that the cause was “sudden death during restraint,” along with “a significant existing factor of coronary arteriosclerosis, or thickening or blocking of the arteries,” as reported in the News-Times.

The deceased inmate’s mother sued Connecticut, but the state eventually won; a jury agreed that Garner’s staff had used appropriate force in restraining a violent prisoner.

* * *

By 2000, the state prison system was at capacity again, and Connecticut’s Prison and Jail Overcrowding Commission determined that there was no getting around it: the state needed to build more cells. The main reasons were “longer prison stays, near-elimination of supervised home release, more juveniles sentenced as adults, and a crackdown on drugs and gangs,” plus, “more inmates with mental health needs.”

But they didn’t want to build new prisons. They were instead looking at expanding the existing ones, and Garner was high on the list. Newtown’s first selectman (who at the time was in negotiations to purchase Fairfield Hills back from the state) was livid. “The state has a problem with severe overcrowding, but I would like state officials to look elsewhere,” he told the New York Times. “We’ve done more than our share, hosting Garner and a state mental hospital for 62 years before it closed.” He said that things had gotten better since Garner’s initial, turbulent years, and so it would now be best to keep things the way they are, writing to the commissioner, “Any attempt to build a second facility or a major expansion of the existing Garner facility will be strongly opposed. Any political might that we can assemble will be used.”

Newtown once again stepped up — and this time, finally, the state backed down. The commissioner came to Newtown for a meeting with the Prison Safety Committee at Edmond Town Hall, and said they had decided to expand somewhere else. He even thanked the townspeople for their feedback, acknowledging that, “The response of Newtown residents to the problems at Garner in its early days has shaped how the Department of Corrections has come to deal with the public in communities which host DOC prisons.” He told the Newtown Bee, “It’s good to have communities that are active like this.”

The overall population at Garner was not going to increase — but the prisoners cycling through it would continue to change: in 2002, Garner held 198 mental health inmates. In 2003, there were 271. And based on the cases coming to trial across the state, the numbers were only expected to increase. Connecticut would have to put them somewhere.

* * *

When the namesake of Newtown’s facility, Ward A. Garner, was himself in charge of a prison, a century before, he took great pride in the system of order he maintained for his inmate population. Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield was already a relic even in Garner’s day, originally built in 1827, but it was not a primitive institution: as Garner wrote to the state’s then-commissioner in 1911, the prison’s buildings were all heated by steam in the winter, and the cell blocks “are well lighted and ventilated and are kept scrupulously clean.” The inmates also had modern accommodations: “Every cell is supplied with the necessary furniture, an electric light, bowl with running water and a water-closet.” And the food served in the cafeteria was “plain but wholesome, and a different bill-of-fare is provided each week”; showing the goodwill that he was long remembered for, he was careful to note that “quiet conversation is permitted during the meals.”

Additional buildings on the grounds included workshops, where the inmates made shirts and shoes by hand — wares that the prison then sold, diverting the profits to pay 75% of the total costs to maintain the prison. And, if the inmates did any work beyond their expected output for the day (which was not mandatory, as, “Some do not care to [earn money] and some can not, I suppose,”), they were allowed to keep that portion of their earnings. “Men are leaving our institution every week with $100 in their pocket, that is nothing unusual,” Garner once proudly told Congress.

There was also a laundry, where the female prisoners (who were housed separately) worked, and then a chapel, where both Protestant and Roman Catholic services, along with Sunday-school classes — all optional — were held every week.

Finally, in an out-of-the-way spot, the execution house was built, “equipped with with an automatic hanging-machine.”

When new inmates arrived at Ward Garner’s old prison, they were each given a “thorough physical & mental examination,” and each had their body and facial features measured for identification according to the Bertillon system (the first system for biometrically tracking criminals, recently developed in France). From there, they entered a three-tiered inmate program, always beginning from the second level. “Promotions and degradation between the [grades] is determined by a system of marks,” Gardner explained, “which are given on conduct, work and mental advancement. Members of the first and second grades enjoy different privileges in regard to letters, reading matter and visits from friends, while prisoners reduced to the third grade are deprived of almost all privileges.”

Petty infractions were met with a warning. Repeat offenders were placed in solitary confinement — where the rules dictated that they be treated humanely: “Prisoners are given bread and water twice a day and are visited daily by the prison physician. In some cases the offender is required to stand with his hands chained to the door in front of him. No officer is allowed to strike a prisoner except in self-defense.”

At the first, and highest tier, prisoners would have access to the parole board, with Gardner himself as the chair. The board could grant parole for “convicts who have served their minimum term and who, by their conduct, career and character, give presumptive evidence of a disposition to live an orderly life.” Prisoners let out on parole had to check back once a month until their sentence was served; as of 1916, about 90% of prisoners were in the first tier, and only a handful all the way down in the third.

The 1911 methods of accounting for prisoners with mental illnesses, meanwhile, were fairly simple. Insane inmates (as well as those with acute tuberculosis) were not housed with the rest of the population, and were not included in the prison’s labor force; there was a “special ward for insane male prisoners” next to the prison hospital, and they had a separate yard for recreation. A “consulting physician in lunacy” was appointed to the insane ward, visiting at least once per month to evaluate each inmate’s progress. The insane ward was for men only; Connecticut State Prison did not accept female insane prisoners, and, “In case any female convict becomes insane during her term of imprisonment, provision is made for her removal by the order of the governor to the Hospital for the Insane at Middletown.”

NEW ERA

In 2003, Connecticut’s Department of Corrections was rocked by a massive lawsuit. It was on behalf of all 1,700 corrections officers in the state who were female, and it arrived as something of a reckoning for the “tough on crime” commissioner — who, it turned out, fostered a workplace environment where sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation were commonplace.

The reports had been suppressed internally at DOC for years: male guards and prisoners displayed pornographic images in the presence of female guards. Male guards exposed themselves, and touched the female guards in sexually suggestive ways. When one of the women wouldn’t go on a date with a male guard, he allegedly “joked” about telling the inmates of the locations in the prison where they might get away with raping her. When one of the women complained, she soon found her office moved: across from a cell housing a known public masturbator.

There were hundreds of stories, all of them bad.

The attorney pursuing this latest suit, aiming at the DOC culture itself, identified the Commissioner of Corrections as the root cause of the problem, saying he “knows full well that it is unspoken department policy to cover up harassment, to lie to investigators and to turn a blind eye to the illegal, pervasive and dangerous culture that has become the norm under his jurisdiction.”

The day after the reports came out, the besieged commissioner announced that he was taking an early retirement. He was soon spotted boarding a transport plane to Iraq, having signed on as one of the occupying force’s top “corrections advisers.” The following year, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal erupted.

* * *

Connecticut’s new commissioner was the first female to have ever held the post, and a 26-year veteran of DOC. She quickly announced that the abusive conduct that preceded her would no longer be tolerated, that every complaint would be re-investigated, and that she was signing a settlement with the female guards.

As she got on with the business of running the corrections system, she found that the mentally ill inmate population was still the most urgent problem. More and more were filling the cells, all over the state. She announced that DOC would continue to “consolidate its mental health services for the offender population at the Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown,” in order to “provide the necessary standard of care in a fiscally prudent manner.” And Garner would be partnering with psychiatric doctors from the University of Connecticut, to ensure this growing crowd of prisoners received the services they needed.

The Corrections Officers’ Union welcomed the change in leadership at DOC. They told the Hartford Courant they hoped it would mark the “dawn of a new era.”

* * *

Later that year, the former mayor of the town of Waterbury stood trial, for sexually abusing minors. Given the nature of the charges, and his former position of authority, the prosecutors said they had concerns about his safety in the general prison population; so, when the state moved him to Garner to attend the trial, he was put in a cell in the most secure unit in the facility: the psychiatric ward.

The first chance he got, the fallen mayor was pleading to a judge to move him to another prison, because “people are yelling and screaming all night” at Garner.

The judge ruled that the placement was for his protection, and so he would have to stay, and tolerate the yelling and screaming like everyone else in the ward.

When the Waterbury mayor was eventually found guilty, and sentenced to 37 years, they finally did let him move to Garner’s “gen pop” — a few years after, he was assaulted by another inmate, wielding a sock filled with four AA batteries. He got a concussion and needed stitches, but he still asked the Garner staff that whatever they did, they didn’t send him back to the psych ward.

* * *

The commissioner had gotten settled into her new office just in time to weather the next huge lawsuit against DOC: this time it was from another state agency, the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities. Like the Office of the Child Advocate’s charge to represent the minor children of Connecticut, this organization represented the state’s disabled citizens — including those whose disability was due to a mental illness, and including any such persons who happened to be inmates in state prisons.

Two other DOC officials were named in their suit: the warden of Garner Correctional Institution, and the warden of NCI (Connecticut’s “Supermax” prison, in the town of Somers). These two sites, the Advocate’s office charged, were failing to meet their responsibilities to their mentally ill inmate population.

Since Garner was increasingly the destination for the state’s mentally ill convicts, the shortcomings found there were seen as especially serious: the Advocate’s office observed discrimination against the mentally ill inside Garner’s psych ward, as these inmates “often receive disciplinary charges for behavior that is caused by their mental illness.” Worse still — and contrary to the spirit of a correctional institution — there was a real risk that Garner might actually be making them worse. “Inmates in certain mental health units at Garner are subject to nearly constant cell confinement and enforced idleness,” the suit charged, “conditions that exacerbate their mental illness.” All of this amounted to a violation of their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Meanwhile, at NCI — the only Level-5 facility in the state (Garner was a level 4, meaning “high” but not “max” security) — the gen-pop prisoners were increasingly destined for Garner: “As a result of NCI’s oppressive conditions and inadequate mental health services, [general population] prisoners become mentally ill.”

Just a month after the lawsuit was filed, and as an early indication of its portents, the new Commissioner of Corrections announced that there would be a change to the DOC’s official Mission Statement. Until then, it had read:

“…to protect the public, protect staff, and ensure a secure, safe and humane environment for offenders in a climate that promotes professionalism, respect, integrity, dignity and excellence.”

The DOC’s new mission statement would instead emphasize rehabilitation:

“…to protect the public, protect staff and provide safe, secure and humane supervision of offenders with opportunities that support successful community reintegration.”

The change was announced as part of a shift in the agency’s “correctional mission,” going from “the strict confinement model of the mid-and-late 1990’s to a new Reentry model.”

* * *

Late in 2004, Garner, NCI Supermax, and the DOC agreed to settle the Advocate’s lawsuit. The terms of this settlement, more than any change in commissioner, would bring Connecticut’s corrections system into the modern era of mental health incarceration, with Garner Prison as its cornerstone.

First, the state would more clearly demarcate what would meet the standard of “Serious Mental Illness,” and thus lead to a cell in the psychiatric ward at Garner: the list included Schizophrenia, Delusional Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and Major Depressive Disorder. Also covered were the “mentally retarded,” or prisoners with “organic” mental disorders, or traumatic brain injuries. Finally, the list included any psychotic disorder “that is frequently characterized by breaks with reality that lead the individual to significant functional impairment,” or any Severe Personality Disorder that presents with “frequent episodes of psychosis, results in significant functional impairment, or results in significant or chronic self-injury.”

Any of these conditions were considered severe enough that residency in the psych ward was permanent. There were no cures.

The temporary residents of the psych ward, meanwhile, were mostly the suicidal prisoners — until they were found to no longer be a risk to themselves, which meant they were ready to go back to the general population. And, Garner would reserve the option of placing in the psych ward any inmates with “severe and debilitating symptoms” that were associated with anxiety, PTSD, or Persistent Depressive Disorder, or who exhibited “chronic self injury” within the past year.

When Newtown’s prison was filled completely (as it very often was), Connecticut was permitted to keep the high-security psych prisoners at NCI Supermax — but only if the prisoner warranted a “dangerousness exception.” The warden would thus have to document why the prisoner was dangerous, and describe how all potential “alternative placements” were unworkable. NCI would also have to list what psychiatric services were going to be provided to the prisoner, “to help him with his serious mental illness and to mitigate the effect the conditions at NCI have on that illness.”

Garner and NCI were mandated to establish a new “standard of care,” with minimum clinical staffing levels; for each 150 prisoners who were taking prescribed psychotropic medications, the prison would employ at least one full-time psychiatrist (or a part-time psychiatrist working together with an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse [APRN]). And as for the medicating process, it could only be initiated, changed, or discontinued after a face-to-face meeting with the patient — unless it was the patient himself who was discontinuing his taking of medication, which he could do at any time. However, if their assigned psychiatrist did not agree with that move, it would be back to gen-pop for the prisoner — and if they ever acted out, back to solitary.

Once they started taking medication, a prisoner would be seen by a psychiatrist no less than once every two months, to evaluate their progress. “If the prisoner refuses to exit his cell to meet with the psychiatrist or APRN,” then those staff members were to “see the prisoner at his cell, assess the clinical situation, [and] devise and institute an appropriate intervention for the individual prisoner.”

There would be a new Intensive Mental Health Unit at Garner, too, which would offer “out-of-cell therapeutic, educational, rehabilitative and recreational programs” for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, available to “all prisoners who are capable of safely participating.” (As the warden put it, “the goal is to keep them busy.”)

Finally, every single psych-ward prisoner would have their own roadmap for how the prison was going to help them improve their mental health: an Individualized Treatment Plan. The ITP would be updated constantly to account for the prisoner’s behavior, and how they were “responding to the programming” — the staff could force the prisoner to wear restraints during recreation time, for instance, but would have to update that prisoner’s ITP plan, with a goal to work toward “participation in therapeutic programs [for] at least 5 hours per day, 5 days a week,” with the restraints off.

As for the guards, each would get at least eight hours of training, per year, on mental health issues, including “prevention of suicide and self-harm, recognizing signs of mental illness, techniques for communicating with mentally ill prisoners, and alternatives to discipline and use of force.” They would still be authorized to use force in the psych wing, but Garner agreed that before doing so, “a clinical intervention shall be attempted by a qualified mental health provider,” who would try to “verbally counsel the prisoner and attempt to persuade him to cease the behavior that has led to the planned use of force.” The supervising guard would then issue a final verbal warning, and “provide the prisoner with a reasonable amount of time to cease the offending behavior.”

NO ESCAPE

Cell by cell, Garner was changing; it stayed a dangerous place. “We know we’re coming into hazardous duty, but I don’t expect to come into a combat zone,” one guard told the Hartford Courant, in an article that documented a sharp increase in inmate-on-staff assaults at the Newtown facility, right after the transition to the “new era.” Garner’s warden urged patience: “Part of the cultural shift is that the way we’ve done business in the past is inappropriate with this new population.”

In May 2004, an inmate with “a history of mental health problems” was in the middle of a supervised anger management session, when he suddenly became “physically disruptive and assaultive.” Guards rushed in, knocked the prisoner to the floor, and handcuffed him. He had a heart attack, and was pronounced dead at Danbury Hospital that afternoon.

A month later, one psych ward prisoner assaulted another with a razor blade. The victim barely survived.

Two days after that, an inmate was meeting with their mental health counselor in the counselor’s office, when he physically assaulted her. Guards rushed in and restrained the prisoner, but not before he had inflicted serious injuries.

The next day, a 25-year-old inmate in solitary confinement tied one end of a bed sheet around his neck, and the other to an air vent on the ceiling of his cell. Guards didn’t find him until hours after it was too late.

But despite all the chaos, taken as just one piece of Connecticut’s whole corrections system, the transition at Garner was mostly seen as a success. One supporter was a lawyer who had represented another Garner inmate who had taken his own life that year; he didn’t blame the guards for what happened, but instead expressed his view that the only way to prevent such an end would be a camera in every single cell. “The human mind is the most difficult thing to comprehend,” he said. “It’s a difficult problem.”

* * *

Garner’s security system got an upgrade in 2006. “1992 doesn’t seem that long ago,” the warden told the Newtown Bee — but after 14 years, the door-control computers were “antiquated.” The state thus replaced them with modern magnetic locks, while a new $300,000 surveillance system of 230 camera positions, linked to a digital network, was piped into the prison’s security station, replacing the old closed-circuit monitors that first came with the place. Archives of familiar black-and-white time-lapse images, recorded to VHS, gave way to high-definition video files on a vast hard drive. And when Garner ran an escape drill, the helicopters swooping overhead would be equipped with thermal imaging cameras, to track the would-be escapee even through a darkened forest.

The residents who lived in the houses closest-by all had an upgrade by then, too: if anything went wrong, they’d be alerted by text message. The pagers were finally going away. “Nearly everybody has a cell phone, I think,” one police official said. “That makes it a more viable system.”

He knew well the importance of effective communication during an emergency: in 1993, he had been the one cop left behind to manage the switchboard during the real-life Garner riot. His name was Michael Kehoe, and he was now Chief of the Newtown Police Department.

* * *

Beginning in 2005, and depending on patient levels, the mentally ill population at Garner would sometimes exceed the total number of beds left at the only remaining state mental hospital: Connecticut Valley Hospital, in Middletown. On those days, this meant that the psychiatric wing at Garner was in fact the single biggest state institution for the mentally ill in all of Connecticut.

Behind the prison walls, there would still be moments of chaos or danger at Ward A. Garner Correctional Institution. But there would be no more escapes, and no more riots. Newtown’s prison was the product of an advanced society: one where disorder could be kept secured and contained, away and out of sight, for the safety of the village.