Friday, February 17, 2017

Scott Semple Speaks on Corrections Reform

Connecticut Commissioner of Corrections Scott Semple began his talk Thursday by stating a fundamental belief: that “a system without hope is a system in chaos.” It is this conviction that has motivated the many corrections reforms Semple discussed in the talk, “What does a progressive prison system look like?”
In his two years as commissioner, Semple has implemented a number of reforms that have helped Connecticut achieve one of the most progressive prison systems in the country, with remarkably low rates of recidivism and use of solitary confinement. Semple described the various measures he has taken to produce such positive results to members of both the Yale and wider New Haven communities, including several formerly incarcerated people with personal experience in the Connecticut correctional system. The measures ranged from incentivizing good behavior to the establishment of integration centers to assist recently released individuals readjust to life outside of prison to young adult units aimed at mentoring and meeting the unique needs of incarcerated 18-25-year-olds.

His reforms have not been universally supported. One program, which gave incarcerated individuals the opportunity to study at a nearby community college through Pell Grants, was condemned by some as unfair to “law-abiding” people––though, as Semple replied, “everyone…breaks a law every single day.” It is perhaps these attitudes that prevent the American prison system from resembling, say, the German one, which Semple visited and off of which he based some of his ideas. What is needed, then, is a change in culture; both Semple and many of the talk’s attendees brought up this conclusion. An overly punitive approach must be abandoned in favor of one, which, in the words of one attendee, treats inmates as people.

Though such an enormous structural and cultural change seems monumental, Semple offered reason for hope. Both the success of his progressive reforms and the changing attitudes of those working for Connecticut prisons prompt cautious optimism; at one point, Semple recalled hearing correctional officers refer to the people incarcerated in the young adult unit as “mentees” rather than “offenders” or “inmates,” a first in his 28-year career in corrections. While the change is slow and by no means complete, Semple suggests that it is happening––and his efforts to achieve a more progressive prison system are undoubtedly a significant driver of that change.

The event was part of a series, Inside the Box, focused on solitary confinement. While solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 days is internationally recognized as a form of torture, it is widely used in the American correctional system.

To promote understanding of solitary confinement as a form of torture, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) has constructed a replica solitary confinement cell, which gives visitors the opportunity to experience the inside of a solitary cell firsthand. The cell is in the midst of a three-week stay in New Haven (it will be located in Yale Law Library until February 18), and throughout its stay it has been complemented by community discussions, film screenings, expert panels, and numerous other events.