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OP-ED | Of Snakes And Nursing Homes

by Terry D. Cowgill | Mar 8, 2013 5:20am
(5) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

An attempt by the Malloy administration to house elderly, disabled inmates requiring a high level of care at a nursing home facility has run smack up against two powerful special interests: Rocky Hill residents and the Connecticut State Prison Employees Union.

Armed with a petition containing 4,000 signatures, state Rep. Antonio “Tony” Guerrera, who chairs the General Assembly’s powerful Transportation Committee and is a former mayor of Rocky Hill, recently led residents living near a proposed inmate nursing facility on West Street straight to the Capitol office of Gov. Dannel Malloy. Fortunately for the governor, he was out of the building.

The Rocky Hillers are understandably concerned about the presence of incarcerated convicted felons. Prisons, after all, have no place in residential neighborhoods. In separate lawsuits, the town and the residents are seeking injunctions against the reopening of the dormant structure, arguing that its use as a correctional facility runs afoul of town zoning regulations and would adversely affect property values. The problem is, since the state insists that it’s a nursing home and not a prison, local zoning codes can be circumvented.

And it goes without saying that the prison union is also up in arms about the facility. If the proposal succeeds, increasing numbers of disabled and terminally ill inmates would be housed in private nursing facilities staffed by lower paid workers, not dues-paying corrections employees who can retire on a full pension after only 20 years. Such a high level of care in a state prison would run about $120,000 a year.

The Malloy administration insists savings for the state could be substantial, which of course is precisely what union bosses don’t want to see. The union likes the status quo, which also allows corrections employees to pad their generous pensions by piling on the overtime in the last three years before retirement.

Rocky Hill residents are concerned, as one told CT News Junkie, that “pedophiles, drug dealers, and the mentally ill” will be in their midst. But I think the central question is: how much of a threat do inmates who need nursing care actually pose to the general population? For as Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s criminal justice adviser, said of the inmates, “They’re nursing home patients. We’re talking about the highest level of care. People in nursing homes are extremely disabled and, more often than not, can’t even get out of their beds.”

If Lawlor is to be believed, then why do these people continue to be incarcerated at taxpayer expense at all? If inmates are no longer capable of harming others, then why not release them? The answer is that if they’re housed in a nursing home rather than a prison, the state is eligible for federal Medicaid reimbursements at 50 percent. Presumably, most of the inmates are indigent and so, if freed, they would be under the care of Medicaid anyway. The savings in releasing them would be minimal. But moving them from a prison to a nursing home would save the state as much as $5.5 million without sacrificing anything in the way of civilian safety. Sounds good to me.

But those facts didn’t get in the way of Joe Vecchitto, vice president of the corrections union, who penned a letter to the Journal Inquirer about what a sweet deal the inmates are getting and the message it sends to would-be criminals: “You can break the law, and get all the care you need, with no skin in the game.”

Yeah, free nursing home care would definitely be a powerful incentive to rob a bank. Take it way, Bonnie and Clyde!

*******

I must confess to an initial twinge of compassion for state Rep. Ernie Hewett of New London, who at a recent Capitol budget hearing idiotically told a teenage girl who had overcome her fear of snakes, “And if you’re bashful, I’ve got a snake sittin’ under my desk here.”

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey wisely removed Hewett from his deputy speaker position and the $6,440 stipend that goes with it. Predictably, Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. called on Hewett to resign. I was willing to believe Hewett really did not mean to use sexual imagery, but alas now I’m not so sure.

If Hewett had slunk quietly away to the status of back-bencher again, no one would be talking about this anymore. But his subsequent attempts to explain the comment have been painful. Hewett called the snake comment an example of “the kind of crazy analogies I use to try to make a point” and added that he does not hire female interns at all because, “that way that keeps me good and that keeps everybody else good.” Hewett’s words have been among the most cringeworthy ever uttered publicly at the Capitol. And that’s saying a lot.

Plus, some lawmakers say Hewett has a history of this kind of unacceptable behavior and that he didn’t decline to use female interns, but was prohibited from having them by the General Assembly’s Internship Committee.

Hewett should resign. Or better yet, the taxpayers of New London should send him packing in 2014.

Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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(5) Comments

posted by: Just another CT resident | March 9, 2013  8:59am

With all the empty buildings in some of our largest cities I suggest they locate the facility in places like Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury and New Haven rather than Rocky Hill. Then there’s the added benefit of employing a great number of unemployed local citizens at these facilities! Sounds like a win-win for everyone.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | March 9, 2013  10:50am

Terry D. Cowgill

@Just another CT: I think the problem with that scenario is it would be more much expensive to convert those empty facilities in the cities into nursing homes. The site in Rocky Hill is already equipped to provide high-level care since it operated as a nursing home once upon a time.

posted by: BrianO | March 11, 2013  10:23am

At some point, politicians need to have the courage to speak honestly about the power of a union that pushes for the highest regional rates of incarceration while crime is at a 45 year low.  The spending is more than higher education and recently determined to be understated by 34% in a recent Vera Institute study.  Governor Cuomo had the courage in NY to state that prisons are not a jobs program.  As a result, prison populations and crime are both down dramatically in NY.  There should be no sacred cows in this fiscal environment.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | March 11, 2013  12:20pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Agree Brian. Our rates of incarceration are far too high.
Interesting debate over the weekend on FOX-CT between Lawlor and Guerrera on the Rocky Hill imbroglio. I thought Lawlor almost knocked him out.
http://landing.newsinc.com/shared/video.html?freewheel=91060&sitesection=wtic_pol_590&VID=24573749

posted by: BrianO | March 12, 2013  12:11pm

Thanks for the link Terry.  I think it was a KO.  We need a less histrionic and more rational conversation about criminal justice spending in our state.