Throughout this semester, I have worked with a powerful coalition of community leaders, professors, survivors of solitary confinement and students. I have watched them make real headway in tackling the issues with solitary confinement in Connecticut while building a community-based advocacy project driven by the voices and experiences of those most affected.
Solitary confinement is an inhumane practice that harms people in prisons all over the country. Solitary confinement, which disguises itself under many names, isolates incarcerated individuals for up to 23 hours a day in cells specifically designed for sensory deprivation. Due to a lack of transparency and accountability in the prison system, it is hard to confirm why individuals are put in solitary and how long they’ve been in isolation. There is no way to verify if inmates have received their recreation time, which consists of spending 1 or 2 hours in a cage, or their showers, which they receive while in shackles.
Connecticut has made strides recently in reforming administrative segregation — another name for solitary confinement. The number of individuals in administrative segregation in prisons like the Northern Correctional Institution has substantially decreased over the last few years. The majority of the reform, however, has been in the practice of the Connecticut Department of Corrections; not in their policy. This reform could be easily undone with a change in leadership. As I mentioned in a previous editorial for the News (“Solidarity on solitary,” Feb. 16, 2017), ending solitary confinement is a bipartisan movement endorsed by legal scholars, mental health professionals, religious leaders and human rights groups across the country.
Earlier this semester, I met four activists central to this movement: Barbara Fair, co-founder of the New Haven-based criminal justice reform organization My Brother’s Keeper, and Yale Law School students Steven Lance, Sameer Jaywant and Claire Kim. The four of them trained a small group of undergraduates in how to collect testimony. I went out into different New Haven neighborhoods with other Yale students to listen and record the stories of survivors. I accompanied Law students to a hearing in Hartford to listen to one of the survivors with whom I worked. Watching him deliver his testimony, I realized I would never think about solitary confinement the same way again.
After I wrote my original piece for the news in hopes of stirring up support, a new bill was introduced into the Connecticut Judiciary Committee to end and reform long-term solitary confinement. Bill No. 7302 passed the state Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support in early April. The bill makes solitary confinement a last resort. The bill places a cap on long-term solitary confinement so no inmates can be held for months and years without end—which is often the case. The significant long-term effects of isolation on mental health can manifest permanently after a mere fifteen days, emphasizing the need for strict limits and precise guidelines. The bill also focuses on annual reporting of solitary confinement statistics to keep a better record of the reasoning behind the length of isolation. Nationally, there is a severe lack of data around solitary confinement, which makes the practices of correctional facilities extremely opaque.
By setting specific standards, the Department of Corrections can work toward more transparency, helping both inmates and officers in the long term. The bill prompts specialized training for employees of the Department of Corrections to help them quickly identify and properly respond to symptoms of mental illness and watch for the over-prescription of psychiatric medication. And arguably, the most important aspect of the bill is that it bans isolation for juveniles and people with mental illness.
The momentum around the bill is key. We cannot let this bill die before the end of this legislative session. The bill still needs to be raised in the General Assembly and then voted on. On Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017universities across Connecticut will come together in a Day of Action Against Solitary Confinement. Yale is proud to participate.
The Yale Undergraduate Prison Project welcomes any and all students and student organizations on campus who wish to participate in our day-long phone banking event. For materials or more information, please contact the leaders of YUPP at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join us and call your Connecticut congressperson! Speak up! This is the final crucial moment and it’s bigger than Connecticut. Legal precedent allows a reform in one state to set a new standard for other states to follow. Solitary confinement is not normal and we don’t have to accept it as a reality of our criminal justice system. In fact, we’re under every obligation to resist it.
Siduri Beckman is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. She is a member of the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project. Contact her at email@example.com