NEW HAVEN — Calling solitary confinement a form of torture and modern-day slavery, Stop Solitary CT on Tuesday night at the Ives Memorial Library called for reform of the state’s prison system, including closing down the maximum-security Northern Correctional Institution in Somers.
According to Hope Metcalf, of the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, one of Stop Solidarity CT’s partners, while they are not in “hermetically sealed cells … most people at Northern are truly in solitary confinement. The only way they can speak to another human being is through a vent in the door” or through the pipes from their sinks.
The group is pushing for legislation that make state prisons more humane, reducing restraints on most prisoners, guarantee them at least eight hours a day out of their cells, give those in restricted housing the same access to programming as the general population and create an independent oversight board.
Administrative segregation, the state Department of Correction’s term for housing its most disruptive, threatening and dangerous prisoners, brings “irreparable trauma, especially for juveniles or people who are physically or mentally ill,” said Leighton Johnson, who said he had spent five years in “isolated confinement” out of 10 served at Northern. He acknowledged that he deserved to be imprisoned for his crimes but said his treatment was inhumane and violated international law.
In the first of three phases in isolation, “I’m chained up,” Leighton said. “Everywhere I go, every time I leave the cell I have to be chained up.” In the second phase, four-point shackles are removed but prisoners must wear handcuffs.
He said it was like being “dumped into a world of chaos, a never-ending cesspool of loneliness, hate, disorientation,” filled with noise and violence. In the worst cases, if a prisoner becomes too big a threat, he is held in “a filthy cell with urine, feces, blood throughout the cell and you have to stay there for three days.”
Rahisha Bivens, a social worker with the Stop Solitary CT campaign, said prisoners held in solitary confinement are disproportionately nonwhite (82 percent at Northern), are 33 percent more likely to commit suicide and are likely to develop mental illness after a short time. “Connecticut was the second-worst state in the nation for disproportionately putting black people in prison,” she said.
“They may disconnect with reality. They may have hallucinations, delusions, trouble sleeping at night,” she said. “We are causing people who are otherwise well to become insane.”
Bivens said she wanted to debunk the idea that isolation increases safety. “It actually makes prisons less safe and actually makes our communities less safe,” she said. Those released directly from solitary confinement are “65 percent more likely to return to prison,” she said.
“Listening that they’re inherently violent, they’re inherently bad … they actually live into that future,” she said.
Even at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, a level-four prison, one below Northern, prisoners are kept in their cells up to 21 hours a day and those who need medical attention are brought to an infirmary that “could even be called worse,” without the television or radio they have in their cells, Bevins said.
Faith Barksdale, a third-year Yale law student with the Lowenstein clinic, said the proposed legislation would ensure that “restraints are never used in a punishment capacity” and added, “We plan to close Northern. It is just not reformable, like Rikers. It just has to close.”
The New York City Council voted to closed Rikers Island, a notorious New York City jail, by 2026.
Barksdale said that, while details have not been determined, the legislation calls for independent oversight of state prisons. Connecticut is “one of a handful of states” without such oversight, she said. “There’s no board or ombudsman that really ensures that the laws and regulations are being followed in prisons.”
Barbara Fair, a New Haven activist who said her son was damaged mentally by serving time in solitary confinement, said it is not true that the correctional system is broken. “The system is working exactly as intended,” she said, exemplifying institutional racism. “They’re intentionally destroying us,” she said. “We’re going to have to step our game because there’s no one coming to save us, believe it.”
She pointed out that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery “except as a punishment for crime.”
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, a supporter of prison reform, said, “If it were left up to me, we would have had this done. But it’s not up to me.” He said “the first hurdle is to get the bill to actually come up,” which is more difficult in the upcoming short budget session of the General Assembly. He said supporters should pressure legislators who show little or no interest in ending solitary confinement.
A petition calling on the state legislators, Gov. Ned Lamont and state Corrections Commissioner Rollin Cook to end solitary confinement is on the stopsolitaryct.org web page.
Department of Correction spokeswoman Karen Martucci emailed a comment Wednesday in which she said the department “is leading the country as a correctional system that has the least reliance on the use of Administrative Segregation, which is often referred to as solitary confinement. Less than .3% of the overall population is currently on this status.”
She continued, “Incidents meeting the threshold for placement typically involve a violent attack on staff or other offenders resulting in serious injury. The goal is always to return to a general population setting as soon as possible while providing programming aimed at addressing the dangerous behaviors that led up to the significant incident. The safety of the dedicated correctional professionals and the population we supervise will always remain our number one priority.”