Watch Dogs

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By Casey Coughlin

David McGuire, Staff Attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU-CT), has been working to protect the rights of Connecticut’s prison population for the past five years. McGuire’s introduction to supporting the incarcerated population started in 2007 immediately following the Cheshire home invasion, when Governor Jodi Rell revoked all individuals out on parole, sending CT’s prison population into a dire state of overcrowding. David McGuire is the only staff attorney at the ACLU-CT and continues to work to maintain, uphold, and support the constitutional rights of inmates across the state.

COUGHLIN: Can you tell me a little about your work at the ACLU-CT?

MCGUIRE: I came on right around the time of the Cheshire home invasion, so right away there were some major criminal justice waves. Probably for my first two years at the ACLU of Connecticut much of my focus was on ways to address prison overcrowding and civil rights violations that were happening in the Connecticut system. At that time we had received numerous reports of people being housed in common areas like hallways, gymnasiums and visitation rooms. When that population spiked there were too many people, too few resources and it created a really bad cycle.

COUGHLIN: Do you think that we are modeling these policy changes after any specific states? Or do you know of any states that are more innovative and ahead of us on this?

MCGUIRE: Well, New York, for example, has had some pretty aggressive prison reform and again there is a lot to be done there. We’re in a pretty interesting place, in that we have a Governor who is really unattached to the problems of the prison system. Being the first Democrat to come in in a long time, he is not tied to any of the policies that are in place. The fact that we have closed several prisons in CT in a short amount of time is quite remarkable. There is risk to closing prisons like that and we have gotten letters from prisoners complaining of overcrowding like I alluded to back five years ago, but this is for a very different reason. This is because they are trying to consolidate the prison system.

One thing we have really been pleased to see is the implementation of the earn risk reduction credits, because it is something that makes the prisons safer. By giving prisoners incentive to behave and better themselves I can tell you myself that many prisoners have hope for the first time. I never could have envisioned that kind of political change five years ago.

The really amazing thing is some of the legislators that were here in the meetings on the “tough on crime” period in the ‘80s and in the ‘90s when a lot of the prisons in Connecticut were built, are changing their position. Our political climate has changed so much that legislators are willing to consider changing the play book. Small changes like that show a shift in attitudes about criminal justice. I don’t mean to sound like a cheerleader but if you had talked to me four years ago I would have been very negative about our prison system, but I really do feel like it is moving in the right direction.

COUGHLIN: Can you give me any examples of the legislators you mentioned earlier that are changing their positions on criminal justice policy?

MCGUIRE: The one that jumps to mind, who is not a legislator anymore, Under Secretary Mike Lawlor, who was chair of the Judiciary Committee for many years. [Lawlor] signed onto the expansion of the prison system in the early ‘90s but now he is one of the reformers leading the charge in terms of making our prison system more cost effective and safe.

COUGHLIN: More specifically, what is your individual role and the ACLU-CT’s role in protecting criminal justice policies that are being challenged, for example the earn risk reduction credits?

MCGUIRE: Well, we submit testimony and testify in favor of things like the earn risk reduction credits. We have and will continue to advocate in favor of those credits because they make sense for the prison system. There is not a constitutional right to those credits, but in terms of a public policy [they] ultimately impact civil rights.

COUGHLIN: In defending the rights of inmates what do you say to an opposing side?

MCGUIRE: The vast majority of people who are serving sentences will reenter society. So it’s in the interest of the general public that people in prison be treated humanely and get resources to get over addiction or mental health problems. It is a quote that I kind of rip off but, you can judge a country and a people on how they treat their prisoners. We are a country who historically has over relied on prison and the thing is incarceration should be a last resort for people who have low non-violent offenses.

At the end of the day it is all about public safety, and what is encouraging is that the Legislature and the Governor get that prisons don’t equal safety. Crime levels have been consistently dropping for quite some time and that is not in correlation with locking people up. I get the position a lot, “Why do you care about these people? They’ve done bad things. They don’t deserve any luxuries.” We are not advocating for luxuries we are advocating for constitutionally sufficient conditions, things that won’t offend the 8th Amendment. We have to come up with a criminal justice system in Connecticut that will keep everyone safe and operate fairly and efficiently, that’s what everyone should be on board with.

COUGHLIN: What is one thing that everyone skips over when they are talking about human rights in prison?

MCGUIRE: People generally think that when someone is in prison they should have absolutely nothing, that they should just be locked in a cell and let out once a day to recreate or shower. The public does not understand that people in prison do get out and do need to have meaningful rehabilitation opportunities and that has been historically lacking, both in Connecticut and nationally.

COUGHLIN: How are an individual’s rights in prison regulated? How does the ACLU-CT come to find out when they are being violated?

MCGUIRE: At one time more than half of the mail we received involving civil rights violations came from the Connecticut Prison System. Now, I would say a quarter to a third of the letters are from prisoners who feel that their rights have been violated. Some of those letters involve people’s criminal trials but the vast majority are from people who believe they are not getting adequate mental health treatment, medical treatment, or conditions of confinement issues. What we do typically is follow up with a letter and a visit and figure out if we can advocate for a prisoner on an individual level or whether their concerns are those of a larger issue we can advocate for. Many times that takes form as prison legislation.

COUGHLIN: So it is actually the inmates themselves reaching out?

MCGUIRE: Right, it’s either the individual or their family members in some cases.

COUGHLIN: Is there anywhere within the system for an individual to express a concern?

MCGUIRE: There is an internal grievance process and if a prisoner wishes to file a lawsuit there is a federal law that mandates the prisoner to exhaust internal administrative remedies prior to filing a law suit. Unfortunately the vast majority of prisoners either don’t have easy access to the grievance system, (literacy barriers or English barriers) and many inmates are worried about potential retaliation after filing grievances. Many times we will tell a prisoner they should document it and try and get the issue resolve internally, but generally when they come to us it is sort of a last resort.

COUGHLIN: How are the inmates finding out about your organization?

MCGUIRE: We are in many of the Prisoners’ Rights Guides listed as a resource. But much of it is word of mouth.

COUGHLIN: Does every prison distribute a Rights Guide?

MCGUIRE: There is a handbook for each facility and many times they have a legal referral or reference section that will tell prisoners how to get in touch with us.

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