New Corrections Chief Vows Prison Reform

Harry Droz photoWhen Rollin Cook started his career as a correctional officer in Utah 30 years ago, the criminal justice system prioritized handling inmates with force.

As the new head of Connecticut’s prison system, Cook plans to build off of his predecessor’s reform legacy by championing communication and rehabilitation rather than physical punishment for those behind bars, as well as anti-discrimination for the recently released.

Cook discussed those criminal justice reform goals and the three-decade trajectory of the country’s prison system as a whole on the most recent episode of WNHH’s “Criminal Justice Insider with Babz Rawls-Ivy and Jeff Grant.”

The 51-year-old former head of the Utah prison system is less than two months into his new job as the commissioner-designate of Connecticut’s Department of Correction (DOC), replacing outgoing commissioner and nationally-celebrated reformer Scott Semple.

“There’s a reason why my nose is crooked,” Cook said during the interview. The commissioner-designate, a soft-spoken but burly veteran of the Utah correctional system who worked his way up from correctional officer to commissioner, said that “everything was about force” when he first started working in Utah prisons in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Correctional officers like him were required to go into cells and “take people down.”

“Now,” he continued, “when we’re looking to hire people, we’re looking for people that can problem solve, that can communicate, that can lead. It’s not about forcing someone, but about leading them, coaching them.”

During his five years as the head of Utah’s system, Cook earned praise from his native state’s governor, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Utah, and the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network for both advocating for staff and for improving inmate mental health and restrictive housing policies.

Recently tapped by Gov. Ned Lamont to bring the same humane, reform-minded prison policies to the Nutmeg State, Cook said he is interested in continuing the work done by Semple, who worked with former Gov. Dannel Malloy to shutter prisons, reduce the state’s incarcerated population, and establish the TRUE program in the Cheshire maximum-security prison where young inmates are mentored by older, fellow inmates serving life sentences for crimes that they committed while they were young.

“The reason I came to Connecticut was because of the things that you’re doing,” Cook said. After listening to Semple present at prison commissioner conferences around the country, Cook remembered thinking to himself, “I wanted to be part of that.”

In his new job, Cook said he will prioritize reforming “restrictive housing” policies that keep Connecticut inmates contained in solitary confinement. He’ll also prioritize “staff wellness” so that employees at all levels of the DOC feel empowered to speak up about what’s working and what’s not from their perspectives in the state’s prison system.

And for those who have been released from prison, Cook said, he will be a champion of anti-discrimination legislation like House Bill 6921, introduced by New Haven State Rep. Robyn Porter, which looks to remove barriers to employment, education, and, in particular, housing for those with criminal records trying to reintegrate into society after being released.

“It isn’t just a corrections problem,” he said. “It’s a social justice problem.” A good job and medical treatment and reform-minded legislation can only do so much for someone recently released from prison, he said.

“If they’ don’t have a place to live when they get out,” he said, “they’re gonna fail.”

“Criminal Justice Insider” is sponsored by The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.

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posted by: Patricia Kane on March 6, 2019  3:17pm

Reform sounds so promising, but it is always about small changes around the edges, rather than a fresh, holistic approach to whether prison is even needed for some people. What are the alternatives to incarceration? What is the goal of incarceration? What should a prison look like? Is there a maximum length of time that anyone can be held?
  How someone who was part of beating up prisoners can now be a proponent of change is challenging my skills around cognitive dissonance.
  The Legislature can’t even bring itself to decriminalize marijuana, despite the substantial science available for at least 40+ years.
  Let Lamont commission a Panel to envision a 21st century approach to treating offenders and then, maybe, something might actually happen.

posted by: wendy1 on March 6, 2019  3:36pm

Sounds good to me.  We need reform and more attention and money spent on prison reentry.  A good mayor will be paying attention.  Housing not shelters is a first step to restarting a life.  I read in a novel recently, all of us should get arrested once especially cops and judges.  I agree and life has taught me all of us are capable of shitty behavior and worse.  A young Yale grad just got arrested for attempted murder in Palo Alto where he worked for Stanford.  Humans are dangerous and unpredictable.  There is still plenty of wild in us.

posted by: CityYankee on March 7, 2019  6:43am

Dear Wendy,  if you would like to experience being arrested;  go ahead.  I’ll take your word for it. Usually, prison is the end of a long and winding road down,  and the convicted have had many chances and many supporters willing to help them along the way.  They chose not to change their path so the consequence is a result of their choices. While I do not support inhumane treatment;  neither do I support conditions that would not impress the convicted of the reality of their situation.

posted by: wendy1 on March 7, 2019  11:04am

AMDC, plenty of innocent people go to prison; plenty of them are victims of evil cops, prosecutors, and judges.  These days you can be accused of the most stupid stuff and land there because the state and corporations make money off of you being there.  Our country has developed military like police who like to bust ass especially if it’s a different color.  Even Yale has a SWAT team.  But I have to say I find NH police to be a kinder, gentler sort and I count myself lucky.

posted by: 1644 on March 7, 2019  5:55pm

Pat: Possession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalized years ago.  It’s an infraction, not a crime.

posted by: Patricia Kane on March 7, 2019  6:46pm

@1644. I want all the Nixon drug laws repealed. No arrest for small amounts does not equal decriminalization of marijuana. The proposal is repeatedly before the Legislature and repeatedly has failed. It’s approval (marijuana only) is just the beginning. of repealing these politically motivated laws which only increase the street value of drugs and contribute to crime.
  We do not have the decriminalization found in Portugal or in other sane countries.