Pubdate: Sun, 03 Mar 2002
Source: New Haven Register (CT)
Copyright: 2002, New Haven Register
Author: William Kaempffer
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


WETHERSFIELD - Department of Correction Commissioner John J. 
Armstrong has witnessed plenty of wars during the 25 years he's spent 
working in the state prison system.

There was the war on drugs that began in the 1980s, in which he saw 
thousands of addicts ushered into prison. During the war on gangs in 
1990s, law enforcement dismantled some of the most violent drug gangs 
in Connecticut and jailed their leaders.

There was the war of public opinion, when politicians enacted tough- 
on-crime legislation that imposed longer prison terms and truth-in- 
sentencing guidelines.

And most recently, the prison system felt the impact of the war on 
terror, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and 
Naturalization Service detained and jailed hundreds of people in 
Connecticut alone.

Reflecting on his career and what lies ahead, Armstrong said last 
week that prison overcrowding is his primary challenge.

The variety of wars rocketed prison populations to record levels in 
the last decade. "We're well beyond design capacity and we have been 
for years," said Armstrong, DOC commissioner since 1995.

The simple solution would be to build more cells and the department 
currently is expanding by more than 1,000 beds.

But Armstrong said it would be imprudent to engage in a massive 
expansion since the prison population, which has increased every year 
since 1994, inevitably will peak and begin to recede. The challenge, 
he said, is to reach an equilibrium.

"We don't want to overbuild our system," said Armstrong.

According to those who have worked with him, the 46-year-old chief of 
corrections is not one to shy away from a challenge.

Rep. Michael Lawlor (D-East Haven) said Armstrong is a leader who 
makes hard decisions and then stands behind them, with a unique 
ability to cut through personal agendas and build consensus.

"Armstrong is able to resolve things without getting in a brawl," he said.

While Lawlor acknowledged he doesn't agree with all of those 
decisions - most notably the 1999 transfer of prisoners to Virginia - 
he said Armstrong has never strayed from his commitment or 
professionalism."I hold him in very high esteem," Lawlor said. "I 
think if everybody in the system had a very sensible and open minded 
approached like he does, then I think we would have a much better 
criminal justice system."

Born in New Haven, Armstrong spent most of his life in West Haven. He 
still lives there with his wife, Beth.

He has a son and daughter in college.

Armstrong joined the DOC on Jan. 17, 1977 after graduating from the 
University of New Haven with a degree in criminal justice and law 
enforcement administration. He's an adjunct instructor at UNH.

He started as a correction officer at the New Haven Correctional 
Center, at 245 Whalley Ave. From there, he rose through the ranks. In 
1989, he was named warden of the Jennings Road Detention Center in 
Hartford, and in 1990, the warden of Manson Youth Institution in 

By 1994, he was deputy commissioner and in 1995 took the helm as commissioner.

During his 25 years, he watched the department grow from about 3,500 
prisoners and nine institutions to nearly 20,000 inmates, 7,200 
employees, 18 facilities and an annual budget of more than $500 

When he started, "it probably was a much simpler, straight-forward 
business," Armstrong said. Distinctions like "mental health 
population" and "special-need offenders" had yet to be identified. 
Many of the rehabilitative programs were just being formulated, the 
"best of which" remain in place today, Armstrong said.

One of the largest changes, he said, has been opening the inner- 
workings to the public.

Most people have a strong opinion on what should happen to people who 
go to prison, he said, and that perception isn't always based on 
reality. "Most people base their opinion on a Hollywood perception."

"Most people think when you go to prison you either sit in your cell 
all day or bang out license plates."

Actually, some prisoners do manufacture license plates. But prisoners 
also operate a furniture-making facility and one of the department's 

In recent years, corrections has worked to be more open, Armstrong 
said. The department sponsors public tours of facilities and adopted 
an open door policy with crime victims, he said.

"We spend an awful lot of tax dollars," he said. "I want people to 
understand what we do. We used to have a fortress mentality that we 
did not disclose information, we didn't share information."

He also has seen the pendulum of public opinion on the role of 
prisons swing several times - from rehabilitation to punitive and 
back again.

Throughout, he said, he tried to support programs that give offenders 
the best chance of staying clean on the outside - job training, drug 
rehabilitation, anger management.

Yet he's taken a no-nonsense approach when it comes to discipline, 
dealing decisively with jailhouse disturbances. He fostered a program 
that isolated gang members from the general population and worked to 
share criminal intelligence with other law enforcement agencies.

Gang members are locked down under "Spartan conditions" and rivals 
are often housed together under close supervision. That enables them 
to "bottom out" and work their way back into general population.

"It's allowed us to go from thousands of gang members to a few 
hundred," he said, adding, "This is not a warehouse program."

To that end, he proposed legislation as the chairman of the Prison 
and Jail Overcrowding Commission to repeal mandatory minimum 
sentencing that placed drug offenders in jail for years.

Now, judges regained their discretion in sentencing these non-violent 
criminals, which can help thin prison populations.

"I think we're on a better educated perspective right now," he said.
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