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Inmate death at Newtown, Conn. prison is under investigation

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Razer-edged wire surrounding sections of Garner Correctional Facility in Newtown in this file photo.

By Bill Cummings, Connecticut Post
NEWTOWN


Surrounded by lush trees and sprawled across 188 acres of manicured property, Garner Correctional Institution is out of view for most residents of this semi-rural town of stone walls and Victorian homes.

The maximum-security prison is home to 500 or so of the state’s worst inmates — those guilty of violent crimes such as robberies and assault. Some 48 cells are reserved as segregation units to protect other inmates living in cramped pods.

But that dangerous mix burst into the spotlight when state officials declared the death of J’Allen Jones, 31, of Atlanta, Georgia, a homicide last week. Jones, who had a history of mental illness, died in March while being restrained by guards armed with pepper spray.

"It’s alarming," said Dan Barrett, legal director of the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"This was a guy who had mental illness," Barrett said. “It makes you wonder if they should be subjected to force or command-and-control tactics. It’s very disturbing."

Jones’ death lifts ever-so-slightly the veil over a secretive prison system, and draws questions over what happens behind the high walls and razor-wire topped fences.

While Garner is a Connecticut-run prison, a recently published story on federal prisons that are suffering from budget cuts as President Donald Trump and Congress shrink the size of government, raises questions about state staffing. The New York Times story on federal prisons pointed out that officer shortages mean teachers and clerical staff are filling in as guards at some facilities.

Connecticut has also cut its prison budget as inmate populations dropped, although it’s not known if those reductions have anything to do with Jones’ death.

Barrett said the public may have to wait weeks and months before complete information is released.

"It would surprise me if they [DOC] ever say they did something wrong," Barrett said.

Violent outburst

The state medical examiner said last week the homicide classification placed on Jones’ death does not necessarily mean prison guards did anything wrong.

DOC and the state police are investigating the incident.

Details released so far indicate Jones had a history of mental illness. He was serving a 10-year sentence for robbery and had been incarcerated since 2014.

© Provided by Hearst Communications, Inc
Garner Correctional Facility in Newtown in Newtown in this file photo.

Jones on March 25 was being taken to the Garner mental health unit when he became "non-compliant," and "combative" with staff. During efforts to restrain him, officers deployed pepper spray.

© Provided by Hearst Communications, Inc
Garner Correctional Facility in Newtown in Newtown in this file photo.

Dr. James Gill, Connecticut's chief medical examiner, said Jones died suddenly "during struggle and restraint with chest compression."

Life saving measures were initiated, and Jones was transferred to a nearby hospital, where he was declared dead.

DOC officials said an initial review did not uncover wrongdoing by officers or use of excessive force. A DOC spokesperson on Monday declined further comment.

In a statement, the union representing correction officers said they work in a dangerous environment and expect that the officers will be exonerated.

"No one disputes that inmate Jones' death was a tragedy, but we believe that the correctional officers who responded to the incident acted appropriately and professionally under the circumstances and will be exonerated once all the facts of this case are known," said Michael Tuthill, president of the AFSCME Local1565.


Fewer inmates

The state’s prison population has been on a downward trend for years, dropping from a high of nearly 20,000 inmates in 2010 to less than 14,000 this year. The decline is due in part to prison and justice system reforms, and a gradually improving economy.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has focused on prison rehabilitation efforts, education and training for inmates and keeping younger offenders out of prison.

Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Malloy, said Monday the governor is awaiting the conclusion of the investigation.

“Gov. Malloy takes any untimely death of inmate in the correctional system very seriously,” Donnelly said.

There have been recent prison controversies. The state is pulling back a $100-million a-year, no bid contract with the UConn Health Center to provide medical services for inmates amid complaints of inadequate care. The program will now be run by DOC.

Barrett said the state has cut the prison medical budget over the years, adding DOC may be in the position of having too little money and too many prisoners.

Donnelly said budget cutbacks have not impacted treatment of inmates.

“While fewer prisons and fewer inmates means less correctional staff are needed, the high standard for care and safety has not diminished,” Donnelly said.

”Many of the reforms implemented under Gov. Malloy have enhanced safety inside and outside of the correctional system, but there is of course more work to do that builds upon these improvements,” Donnelly said.


Mental Health

It’s generally believed that a high number of inmates suffer from mental health illness. An exact number of inmates with mental health issues could not be obtained.

State reports indicate that between Jan. 1, 2005, and Dec. 31, 2016, 307 inmates died while incarcerated, with the leading cause of death being illness. During that time span, 44 inmates took their own life.

"My suspicion is the biggest problem in prison is mental illness," Barrett said. "And they are not diagnosed properly because that brings the responsibility of treatment."

Barrett added the state should look at whether restraint procedures work in every situation.

”They may not process information the same way we would ...,” Barrett said of inmates with mental illness.

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