Berlin native Mike Lombardo has a unique perspective on the controversial proposal to put a nursing home here for terminally ill and mentally incapacitated state prisoners.
Lombardo now lives in Rocky Hill with his wife and son, three minutes from the proposed facility. He's also a corrections officer with the state's Department of Corrections and is a union rep for AFSCME local 1565-np-4 correctional officer bargaining unit.
In short, Lombardo thinks the proposed nursing facility is a bad fit for the neighborhood and the town.
"There are a number of reasons that this is wrong in this space but my biggest fear is that they are using private security that is untrained and unskilled and doesn't have the mandatory training in dealing with these prisoners," Lombardo said. "People will visit these prisoners at the home. If they visit at a correctional facility they have to go through a background check and we have a K-9 drug sniffing dog they have to pass by. Most visitors are compliant but what about the ones that aren't. They won't have a K-9 unit there. I would bet they don't have an emergency response plan and what is their chain of command. It is a huge recipe for disaster."
There has been much discussion and outcry against the proposed nursing home at 60 West St. in Rocky Hill. Neighbors and residents don't want it because they fear it is really more of a prison and not a nursing home as the state has proposed. Town officials do not want it because they say the state superceded local zoning rules to allow it to operate in a residential neighborhood.
Lombardo said just because these prisoners are at the end-of-life stage or are mentally incapacitated, doesn't mean there's no potential for problems.
"All if takes is one person to tip something off," the Berlin native said. "Can you imagine if these people are in pain at end of life? Do you think their family won't try to sneak some drugs to them to ease the pain. I have seen 'lifers,' people who have been in and out of the criminal justice system their whole lives and most of them are dependent on drugs or alcohol. The narcotics have ruined their lives. They have to have it. So how will this private security team deal with this issue? And the state says these people will be incapacitated. I have seen firsthand, the older you get the wiser you get. I have seen old men take down younger men because they were smart. It can happen and might happen here. Are they willing to say the private security and that facility can guarantee these prisoners won't escape and what happens if they do? What is the plan then?"
He also disputes the state's calculation that the facility will need 500 beds for end-of-life prisoners. He doubts there are that many prisoners in the system who would qualify to be sent to the new home. To qualify for end-of-life status, prisoners must be within six months of dying. He said each prison right now has an infirmary and a wing at the UConn Medical Center to handle some of these prisoners.
"This is the state's foot in the door to for privatization over our bargaining unit. I can't tell you what the future holds, but in my opinion this is what that is. I am three minutes away, but I feel terrible for those people that live right next to the facility."
Lombardo, who grew up in Berlin, says other towns should sit up and take notice.
"If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere," he said. "I would hate to see it happen in my hometown of Berlin. The mayor of Rocky Hill sent a letter to the mayors of all the towns in Connecticut letting them know about this. It just makes no sense.
"There are two prisons that were closed in Mansfield and Cheshire. Why not re-open one or both of them and put these 500 beds there? At least the facility would be more secure with fencing and a big area away from residents. The simple answer is the state doesn't want to pay for the labor.
"The state is saying this facility is sovereign to zoning because it is an extension of a state agency and acting on behalf of the state. If they can say that here, they can say it anywhere so other towns should really be watching this case."