Connecticut’s top jailer has doubled his intelligence squad—and he’s just gotten started.
The squad is reviewing phone calls and collecting other information at each of the state’s corrections facilities. It is pumping that information to other squad members embedded with the FBI and with cops in New Haven and other cities pecking away at 280 “cold cases” as well as fresh shootings.
That word comes from James E. Dzurenda, whom the state Senate recently confirmed as Connecticut’s commissioner of corrections.
Dzurenda popped in recently on a weekly data-sharing “Compstat” meeting at New Haven police headquarters, then spoke with the Independent afterwards, to affirm his commitment to using both new technology and beefed-up staffing to help law enforcement keep after gangs.
“If you have an offender that becomes incarcerated, they don’t automatically stop talking about what happens on the street,” remarked Dzurenda. “They want to know what’s happening on the street because it affects them in prisons.”
Dzurenda began running the corrections department a year ago, prior to his eventual confirmation. In that time, he has doubled the intelligence staff, he said, up to about 30 full-timers. Each corrections facility has one or two full-time intelligence officers on site, he said. He has assigned others full-time to urban police forces and the statewide FBI office in New Haven, to “Make sure they have the connections between those offices and the offenders on the inside.” He has also assigned an intelligence officer to New Haven’s new prison reentry effort, called Fresh Start, “helping not-for-profits and halfway houses in New Haven to know about gang intelligence.”
Often the best intelligence about gang connections comes from prison, both he and other law-enforcement officers said.
The state started monitoring inmates’ phone calls around 1994, according to Dzurenda. In those days corrections used reel-to-reel tapes. “Now it’s all digital,” he said. Six months ago he brought in an enhanced system that helps the state record 100 percent of calls made from all prisons; the department then listens to some at random and zeroes in on other targeted calls in which investigators have an interest.
“If we have certain crimes that happen in the community—like on [April 3] they had the murder in New Haven—we look at all the offenders that may have come in,” Dzurenda said.
The enhanced system also provides investigators access to phone calls from federal prisons and lock-ups in other states, he said.
“From my home,” said Dzurenda (pictured), who spent 10 years working at the state lock-up on New Haven’s Whalley Avenue earlier in his career, “I can listen to any inmate’s phone calls around the state.”
Prisoners are told their calls are recorded, he said. He noted that the state’s approximately 16,800 inmates are allowed up to four calls a day. That’s a lot of calls. So they often may figure their call won’t come to the listeners’ attention.
“They help us consistently, every single time we have a major event like a shooting or a homicide,” New Haven’s major-crimes boss, Lt. Al Vazquez, said of the corrections intelligence officers.
Sgt. Jimmy Grasso, who oversees New Haven’s shootings task force, gave an example involving a multiple shooting a while back in Newhallville.
After a few months, police tracked down three people they considered responsible, and arrested all three. With the help of corrections intelligence, they developed the case in part by establishing ties that all three had to the Bloods gang. All three had at some point been incarcerated. Also, the victim was in jail at the time that Grasso’s unit had pieced together the case. The team had access to the victim in jail, which helped confirm key information.
He said he does find one aspect of the mass recording “troubling”—the fact that it includes pre-trial inmates who haven’t yet been convicted of crimes. This U.S. Supreme Court case made it clear that the justices would allow this practice, too. But Pattis argued that the law should be changed to ban it.
“A person who’s been convicted, that’s one thing. You’re in prison. You’ve lost your liberties, including the liberty to communicate freely with the outside,” Pattis said.
“But if you’re just being held as a pretrial detainee, why should you be treated like a convict? It’s outrageous! ... It’s another example where the poor have a different set of rights. If you’re too poor to make bond, and you are awaiting trial or disposition of your case, you’re going to be treated as a convicted prisoner.”
In response, Dzurenda offered two arguments—one practical, one philosophical.
Since the monitoring occurs under one “unified system,” and all calls get recorded, it would be difficult to separate out those of pre-trial inmates, he said.
Also, the pre-trial calls are often the most important to record in order to keep the public safe, he argued. “When you get offenders who just got off the street, that’s when the most criminal intelligences is going to come in. ... They have a lot more information on what’s happening out in the street today.”