From the outside, Osborn Correctional Institution in northern Connecticut looks like a textbook American prison.
Opened in 1963, before the nation began sprouting prisons like mushrooms, the sprawling medium-security facility—which sits on 550 acres of rural land on the outskirts of Hartford—is a fortress of concrete, iron and concertina wire.
But behind Osborn’s walls stands a laboratory for one of the most aggressive experiments in criminal justice reform currently underway in the United States. Under the stewardship of Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, Connecticut has seen its prison population fall to a 20-year low while rates of reported violent crime have plummeted.
Over the past year alone, the number of inmates in Department of Corrections custody has declined by nearly eight percent. During the month of November, the DOC — which oversees both prisons and jails in Connecticut — experienced its largest population drop on record, with 254 fewer inmates in custody than just 30 days prior, officials told The Crime Report.
At Osborn Correctional—the state’s largest facility for men—Warden Edward Maldonado says he went from housing 75 inmates on cots due to overcrowding to closing down whole housing units because he didn’t have the bodies to fill them.
By late November, only 13 of the facility’s 19 cell blocks were being used.
Last month, as part of the Vera Institute of Justice’s “Reimagining Prison” initiative, Maldonado welcomed several dozen community members to Osborn CI to show them the progress first-hand.
“When prison populations started rising, our institutions were really overwhelmed,” he explained, after leading a two-hour tour of the prison that included a walk through an empty cell block he closed in November.
“It took years, but we made great progress in terms of inmate classification and establishing a more controlled environment. Now it’s about giving these inmates the tools they need to succeed when they get outside.”
He was flanked by Gov. Malloy’s corrections chief Scott Semple, who described the shift in philosophy driving criminal justice policy that began more than a decade ago when Connecticut passed America’s first justice reinvestment bill.
“We are driven by three main principles: efficiency, public safety and wellness,” Semple said. “We place a strong focus on wellness. We consider ourselves to be partners in justice.”
The notion of what justice looks like has evolved considerably in Connecticut. Like most of America, the small state saw its prison population skyrocket in the 1990s and early 2000s as tough-on-crime rhetoric and the prospect of new federal grant dollars led to the passage of a number of austere crime measures.
These included a “truth in sentencing” law that put the brakes on early release for some classes of inmates, as well as some of the toughest drug statutes in the nation. Until recently, possession of even trace amounts of any illegal narcotic was a felony carrying a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
If the offense occurred within 1500 feet of a school or a daycare center, it came with a two-year mandatory sentence tacked on.
In the two decades between 1986 and 2006, Connecticut’s prison population grew from 6,000 to 16,000, and at one point the state boasted the fastest inmate growth rate in America. It was a pricey endeavor. Incarceration costs shot up four-fold, from $100 million a year to more than $400 million—more than Connecticut’s entire budget for higher education.
By 2004, Connecticut was bleeding money.
A budget crisis compelled then-Gov. John Rowland—a law-and-order Republican who is currently in federal prison himself on corruption charges—to join a bipartisan effort in the legislature to ease pressure on the state’s prison system. The resulting Act Concerning Prison Overcrowding diverted $13 million into community supervision and re-entry programs and became a model for a nation-wide justice reinvestment (JRI) movement.
More than two dozen states have since followed Connecticut’s lead in passing JRI legislation.
To keep the reform fire burning, in 2006 Connecticut lawmakers created a dedicated Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division under the Office of Policy and Management. Its current under secretary is Mike Lawlor, a former prosecutor who was previously an outspoken promoter of prison reform as a member of the state’s General Assembly.
“What we demonstrated is that so-called justice reinvestment has a tangible impact not only on prison growth but also public safety,” Lawlor told The Crime Report. “From day one we’ve had this very explicit explanation of what our priorities were, and that was to reduce crime, reduce spending and restore confidence in the criminal justice system.
“If the goal is to reduce crime, not doing things that make things worse is a great way to accomplish that.”
Most notably, the reform efforts narrowed the stark racial disparity in Connecticut’s prison population. Between 2008 and 2015 the number of African-American and Hispanic inmates in DOC custody decreased by nearly a quarter.
Despite the efforts, however, Connecticut has remained a regional outlier when it comes to mass incarceration. As recently as 2014 it had the second highest incarceration rate in the Northeast. That began to change last year when Gov. Malloy set out to finish what the state started more than a decade ago with an aggressive set of reform measures known as the “Second Chance Society” initiative.
A law that passed the legislature in June 2015 repealed the state’s draconian drug laws and made it easier for inmates to gain parole.
Within a year hundreds fewer inmates languished in Connecticut’s correctional facilities for non-violent drug crimes, and on September 3, 2016, the prison population dropped below 15,000 offenders for the first time since January 1997.
At Osborn Correctional, the inmate population fell from more than 2000 to just over 1400. Prison officials say this has relieved significant pressure on the facility, enabling it to provide better services for the inmates who are still housed there—particularly those with mental illnesses.
“We have a mental health unit where inmates are required to receive recreation but they require greater supervision and until recently we didn’t have the resources to rotate them outside,” said Maldonado.
“Now, as our population decreased, we’ve been able to get them outside.”
Since taking office in 2011, Malloy has presided over the repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty and the decriminalization of marijuana in the state. But Lawlor says the key to putting the final nail in the coffin of mass incarceration is to keep people from getting caught up in the system in the first place.
“Our recidivism rate is down but that’s just about people who have been in prison,” he said. “The real change is the people that aren’t coming into prison at all.
“Perhaps the most encouraging trend of all is the steady decline in the number of young people being arrested and being incarcerated.”
In 2012, at Malloy’s encouragement, the General Assembly passed a graduated bill that will raise the age for juvenile transfers to adult court from 16 to 18 by 2019. Meanwhile, a series of changes to school disciplinary measures have led to a significant drop in the number of young adults being arrested.
According to data provided by the state’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, the number of 17-year-olds entering DOC facilities has plunged by nearly half since the reforms.
But new law-and-order rhetoric, epitomized by by President-elect Donald Trump and his supporters, threatens to slow down the tide of decarceration.
Earlier this year, Gov. Malloy was forced to abandon efforts to pass a law raising the age for juvenile transfer to adult court to 20. It’s unclear if he will try again when the legislature reconvenes.
In the meantime, the governor and his DOC chief have been taking steps to ensure that young offenders who find themselves behind bars don’t come back. Among other things, the state recently took the unprecedented step of establishing a correctional facility for adult offenders under the age of 22, so that young inmates are not housed with career criminals.
According to Lawlor, a proposal is currently underway to designate another prison to housing offenders between the ages of 18 and 25.
“The governor and Commissioner Semple are rethinking the way we handle young people in the system,” said Lawlor. “Here in Connecticut, the farm team is drying up. If these trends are sustainable they will be unprecedented in the country.”
Christopher Moraff is a regular contributor to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.