January 20, 2004 - New Haven Register (CT)

Crowd Slams Jammed Prisons

By Natalie Missakian, Register Staff

NEW HAVEN - The temperatures were frigid and protesters had to jockey for spots on a single snow-cleared path down the middle of the Elm Street courthouse steps.

But despite less-than-ideal conditions, about 50 people bearing candles and flashlights braved the cold to send a message to state lawmakers about prison overcrowding Monday night.

"I believe if Dr. Martin Luther King were here, he'd be fighting for this issue," said Shelton Tucker, an organizer of Monday's candlelight vigil, which coincided with the holiday celebrating the life of the slain civil rights leader.

The vigil was held to push for state legislation, tabled last session, to address prison overcrowding.

Lawmakers had considered changing the criminal justice system so that criminals arrested on technical violations of their parole or probation would be less likely to be sent to jail.

They also hoped to give judges more discretion when sentencing and weed out inmates with mental illness and substance abuse problems.

"Good legislation has been proposed again and again," said Barbara Fair, Tucker's mother and an organizer of People Against Injustice. "We are here to say: 'No more delays'."

The group also wants the state to halt the controversial practice of sending Connecticut inmates to prisons out of state.

"A lot of people who are incarcerated have families that live in poverty," said Tucker, who has three brothers incarcerated in Connecticut, including one who just returned to the state from a Virginia prison.

"It's hard for them, if not impossible, to see their loved ones."

Three years ago, the same group staged a Martin Luther King Jr. Day vigil outside the home of then-state Department of Correction Commissioner John Armstrong.

That rally called attention to the deaths of two Connecticut inmates while incarcerated at the Wallens Ridge correctional facility in Virginia.

Connecticut inmates have since been removed from Wallens Ridge, but are still being sent to other out-of-state prisons.

"When people don't learn anything (from the past), history repeats itself," said Sally Joughin, another PAI organizer.

In addition to King, the protesters also remembered the late state Sen. Alvin Penn, the Bridgeport lawmaker who fought ardently against the prison transfers.

Fair said the state recently authorized the transfer of 2,000 more inmates out of state, up from 500 when Penn took a stand against the transfers.

"He fought against what (Gov. John G.) Rowland has accomplished in less than a year after (Penn's) death," Fair said.

State Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-92, said second chances in the criminal justice system shouldn't depend on one's income level or skin color.

"There are some people who are powerful enough to get redeemed when they mess up, but there are others who don't get that chance," she said.

Natalie Missakian can be reached at nmissakian@nhregister.

©New Haven Register 2004

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