by Jeff Cohen
Two corrections officers were brutally assaulted late last year at Northern Correctional Institution in Somers. On Thursday, union officials brought them before reporters to tell their stories. WNPR’s Jeff Cohen has more.
Pete Kulhman was taking a prisoner out of his maximum security cell last December when the inmate took a swing at him with a razor blade, cutting the state corrections officer’s neck just millimeters from his jugular.
“He most definitely was trying to kill me. Absolutely he was trying to kill me. Even right now sitting here telling you -- it's a sick empty feeling. It was close. When a surgeon on the hospital tells you that's putting you back together how close it is, that's when the realization hits. This surgeon stated if I didn't’ have such a muscular neck and if he was on scene, he wouldn't have been able to patch me up”
Union officials say prison assaults aren't new. But they say that assaults on officers at Northern – where the state's most dangerous inmates are held -- are becoming more violent. They say inmates feel they've got nothing left to lose. Kuhlman – whose neck bears scars from a razor blade and seven surgical staples -- says this isn't the first time he's been assaulted. But it's the most emotional.
“It's probably because it's been so close to death; you don't think of a will at your age, or family and stuff. I realized I came real close. It was close. I've been punched before, you know, I've been in fights before. He wanted to take my life.”
Brought to a union headquarters in Enfield Thursday, Kuhlman and another officer spoke of their recent assaults – both to remind the state of their concerns about staffing levels and security at the prison, and to remind the public that the work they do is dangerous. Harry Harrison is a sixty two year old Vietnam veteran who was bringing an inmate back to his cell from a medical visit when a cell mate threw hot soup in his face. Next, Harrison got jumped, punched, and fell to the floor.
“When I woke up, both of them were stomping on my head. If it wasn't for another CO that was on the tier at the time, they would have took my life. I did a tour in Vietnam and I'll tell you I never, I never come so close to death as I did right then at that time.”
Harrison thinks the attack was planned, but doesn't know why. It may have been because he was doing his job, instructing inmates to keep their windows clear so that he could see in. It may have been for status earned by beating down a corrections officer.
“These guys have nothing to lose so they do what they feel like doing. Whether you have two, three four five or six guys, if they want to assault you they’re going to assault you. This job here is a very dangerous job you don't get assaulted all the time. You get your fair share but when it comes it comes. And you just can't stop it, there's no way to stop it.”
Brian Murphy is the state's acting corrections commissioner. He says Northern is invaluable because it concentrates the state's most dangerous inmates and segregates them from the rest of the state's prisoners. If they run afoul of the rules, they'll have an opportunity to change their behavior, Murphy says. And he says the state reviews every incident of assault to see if there are ways to improve its policies.
“I'm committed to working with our staff, working with the unions to make that the safest environment possible. But Northern is what it is. It is a maximum security facility. This is our most difficult, dangerous inmates that we have.”
Prison guards Harrison and Kuhlman say getting back in front of prisoners won't be easy. Harrison has headaches, he's on medication, and he's back at work – although not with inmates. Kuhlman isn't back at work yet and he doesn't sleep much. Like Harrison, Kuhlman has seen prison violence before. But there's something about this one that sticks with him.
“We’re human beings as correction officers. I was saying earlier we’re like machines. We’re expected to turn a switch off on our chest every time we walk through the front door at work and go from human to correction officer. It don’t work that way.”
Even after nearly two decades on the job, Harrison says he still gets butterflies when he goes to work. Because he can never know what he'll face when he opens the next cell door.