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Solitary confinement reemerges as major criminal justice issue for lawmakers

DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros
CT-N (Screengrab)
DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros

Members of the state’s Judiciary Committee agreed on Wednesday to consider legislation ending the prison system’s use of solitary confinement, resuming a conversation that ended abruptly last year with a governor’s veto.

The committee approved the concept in its first meeting of the legislative session, meaning its members agreed to draft a bill and hold a public hearing.

In a separate hearing held earlier that morning, the commissioner of the Department of Correction told lawmakers the prison system doesn’t subject the incarcerated to that form of punishment, thanks to the executive order Gov. Ned Lamont issued following his veto.

“There is no solitary confinement in the Connecticut Department of Corrections,” Commissioner Angel Quiros told the Appropriations Committee.

The recent developments are related. Last year, legislators passed the PROTECT Act, a bill that would have sharply reduced the use of solitary confinement in the prison system. But Lamont vetoed that proposal, issuing an executive order in its place to reduce the Department of Correction’s reliance on multiple forms of isolated confinement, like in-cell restraints and administrative segregation.

The Judiciary Committee’s agreement to draft a bill and hold a public hearing on the concept of solitary confinement represents an effort to codify the governor’s executive order — and perhaps go even farther to ensure the prison system remains in compliance.

Sen. Gary Winfield, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said he remains concerned about the executive order because, without a change to the law, a sitting governor could decide they simply do not want to keep the mandate in place.

“What we’re talking about are the conditions by which we treat human beings. Those should not be things that are basically in place based on a whim,” Winfield said. “You can change a statute, but it’s a much more difficult process to change than [when] a governor changes their mind, they receive political pressure and/or an election happens.”

Quiros said that the governor’s executive order ended solitary confinement within the prison system because it brought them into agreement with the so-called Nelson Mandela Rules, which define such isolation as keeping prisoners in their cells for 22 hours a day while denying them meaningful human contact.

Quiros said, per the executive order, the DOC is following those rules, and does not allow the incarcerated to be held in solitary for 22 hours a day for longer than 15 days over a 60-day period.

“I will respect the fact that you are using that definition, but I don’t agree with that definition, and I would love to continue this conversation,” Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, told Quiros during the hearing. “I have a real issue with us thinking that, you know, 15 days in solitary confinement, two hours a day out of a cell, does not constitute isolation. I believe that it still does, and it has a tremendous mental and traumatic impact on the people that are being held in the facilities.”

Quiros said the department has also greatly reduced the use of administrative segregation, a program intended to curb dangerous behavior so prisoners can be transitioned safely back to the general population. The number of people held under that form of confinement has lowered dramatically since he was a warden, Quiros said, and those currently in this group are being let out of their cell for four hours a day.

“Prior to the executive order that individual would have been secured in his cell 23 hours a day,” said Quiros. “So, it’s a huge change.”

There is a disconnect between the general public’s use of the word “solitary confinement” and what the Department of Correction is referring to when it uses the same term, said Winfield. When most people refer to solitary, they’re referencing prisoners being kept in a cell, alone; the DOC, meanwhile, uses terms like “administrative segregation” and “restrictive housing status,” Winfield said, and claims that it uses those practices, not solitary confinement.

“That has confused this conversation,” he said. “Don’t worry about the word ‘solitary confinement,’ that’s for the title of the bill. What we are concerned about, is the fact that through various forms and names, we are doing things that we should not be doing with human beings.”

Winfield said the solitary confinement bill will attempt to create an independent committee charged with oversight of the prison system. The measure is still a work in progress, but as of now, Winfield said, it would not create an ombudsman officesimilar to the one featured in the vetoed PROTECT Act.

“I believe that where we are now is looking at the issue of having an oversight committee that would do many of the things that we were using the ombuds person to do,” he said. “But we have a long way to go in this very short session.”

Quiros concluded his testimony to the Appropriations Committee by addressing the prison system’s reasons for using solitary. He said there were 168 assaults on corrections staff last year. The last time there was a comparable number of assaults was in 2010, when there were 152 incidents — and double the number of people in prisons and jails.

“I need you to keep in mind my staff safety,” Quiros said, emphasizing that change must be incremental so the incarcerated and DOC employees are protected. “I cannot operate safe facilities if the safety is jeopardized.”

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