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Connecticut Activists Push To End The State's Use Of Solitary In The Prison System

Kelan Lyons
CT Mirror
Northern Correctional Institution in Somers

The state Department of Correction has decreased the prison population by about 3,500 during the pandemic, making it the lowest it’s been in over 30 years. But criminal justice advocates are calling for better care for those still behind bars -- specifically a reform to solitary confinement, or what the system calls “administrative segregation.”

A bill before the state legislature aims to do just that. The PROTECT Act, an acronym for Promoting Responsible Oversight, Treatment and Effective Correctional Transparency, would end certain types of restraints, mandate reporting of inmates’ time in their cells and end solitary confinement of 16 hours or more, with a couple of exceptions. 

Stop Solitary CT, a statewide campaign pushing for humane and safe alternatives to extreme isolation, is an advocate for the bill. 

“It includes prisons where people are in cells for over 22 hours for punitive measures, which should never happen, and those prisons where people are locked in a 22-hour block as a norm. We want to see that end,” said Barbara Fair, lead organizer and member of the steering committee for Stop Solitary CT. She was a guest on a recent episode of Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live

Fair’s son served a sentence at Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut’s only supermax prison, now slated to close by July 1, 2021. She said the hardest part is seeing how confinement still affects her son today. 

“He says he feels at 70 percent. He said he’ll never be the same after what happened to him,” Fair said. 

The impact of extended isolation in prison includes anxiety, visual and auditory hallucinations, depression, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder, sometimes years after, Fair said.

Leighton Johnson, a public education coordinator with Stop Solitary CT, said the problem with solitary confinement is that it’s marketed as a place for “the worst of the worst.” But that’s far from the reality, he said. People are often put in solitary confinement after a couple of minor infractions.

“I was sent to Northern CI from having a fight,” Johnson said. “I had only been in prison for about a year on a 10-year sentence. It was kind of hard to adjust. The walls are bare. There is no air for you to breath. It’s freezing cold in the wintertime because they keep the air on blast for whatever reason. You get three showers a week and that’s if they choose to let you out. Everywhere you go, you are in full restraints like a slave. I can still hear the sounds of the chains dragging on the floor.”

Johnson spent a total of five years in solitary confinement at Northern Correctional Institution during his 10-year sentence, an experience that has left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

In addition to ending extreme isolation, the PROTECT Act would bring back the Office of Corrections Ombuds, which had existed in the state until 2009. The ombuds would act as a watchdog for the agency to ensure accountability and transparency. 

“If there was someone inside where incarcerated people could submit complaints to, it would reduce a lot of the lawsuits going on right now,” said Johnson. “Having the oversight within the system, some people -- you can’t get them all -- will do things differently because they know someone is looking. Unlike right now, none of that is going on inside.”  

The bill is before the state’s Judiciary Committee. A public hearing was held March 22 and more than 100 people testified, according to Stop Solitary CT. 

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.

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