Haunting shrieks, the repeated pounding of a steel door, the echoing voices of guards and then silence: These are sounds Yalies will hear when they step “Inside the Box” at Sterling Memorial Library’s latest exhibit — a life-sized solitary confinement cell to raise awareness of what organizers call a hidden form of torture.
The windowless replica, no bigger than a large closet, is modeled after a solitary unit in a Wisconsin prison and is accompanied by recordings from a facility in Maine. Aiming to educate the public while pushing for legislative action, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture led the effort to bring the cell to New Haven. The project drew wide support from activist organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, three New Haven churches, several organizations at the Law School and the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project. The exhibit will stand outside the library’s Starr Reference Room until Feb. 12.
“It’s really about making the invisible visible,” said Rev. Allie Perry, NRCAT board president. “A lot of people don’t know that [solitary confinement] is used for disciplinary purposes for really petty things. And there may be people who don’t understand how damaging it is, and that the prolonged isolation has prolonged psychological and spiritual effects.”
Connecticut Department of Corrections Director of External Affairs Karen Martucci wrote in an email to the News that, of the 14,784 inmates in the state, only 38 are held in administrative segregation, or solitary confinement. That number is among the lowest of any state, and Connecticut’s lowest in recent history, she said.
But Perry said that although the decrease marks a step in the right direction, the use of solitary cells is not restricted to administrative segregation, which consists of 23 hours a day spent in a solitary cell. Solitary confinement methods, which encompass other practices with more lenient parameters, are used in every prison in the state and, even though it is less extreme in some facilities, they are still damaging, she said.
She and YUPP hoped to bring that message to Yale, as students had the opportunity to experience the cell for themselves.
“It really is an awful, horrible thing,” said Patrick Sullivan ’18, vice president of YUPP. “We wanted to do something that would bring more awareness, and we think the cell can be a good way for people to get a glimpse of what this might be like.”
Perry also cited the testimony of Juan Méndez, who once spent over a year in solitary confinement in Argentina. Now the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Méndez has stated that spending 15 days in solitary confinement should be considered torture, Perry said. She also emphasized research that suggested the brain undergoes notable changes after even 14 days of being confined.
But Martucci said that the use of administrative segregation is needed in some situations.
“Administrative segregation is an option necessary to gain control following a significant violent offense that has created a concern for the safety and well-being of our staff and other offenders,” she said. “The goal of our [administrative segregation] program is to return an offender back to general population after an appropriate ‘cooling-off’ period followed by some meaningful programs to encourage positive behaviors. We are committed to operating safe correctional facilities.”
She cited an incident earlier this month, in which one correction officer was killed after prisoners in a Delaware facility took several officers hostage, as a potential situation that might merit the use of such segregation.
But law students associated with the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at the Law School have rebuked that assertion.
“It’s easy to believe that isolation is a necessary tool to ensure prison safety, and that the people who are subjected to it somehow deserve that kind of inhumane treatment,” wrote Claire Kim LAW ’17, Sameer Jaywant LAW ’18 and Steven Lance LAW ’18 — three students involved with the clinic’s advocacy — in a statement to the News. “But this is simply not true. Under Corrections Commissioner Scott Semple, Connecticut has substantially limited its use of isolation over the last few years, and there has been a marked decrease in assaults on correctional staff and inmates, as well as in disciplinary reports and suicide attempts.”
The clinic, which has been collaborating with the ACLU since 2010, says it is now calling on legislators to significantly limit the use of isolation in state prisons.
The Law School will host a panel discussion on stopping solitary confinement in the state on Wednesday, where state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-East Hartford, and David McGuire, the executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, are scheduled to speak alongside community activists.
“Solitary confinement costs too much, does nothing to rehabilitate prisoners, and can exacerbate or even cause mental illness,” McGuire said. “Connecticut has made strides in reducing the use of solitary confinement, but there is still room for improvement. Last year, 314 people were placed in long-term isolation in Connecticut prisons, and our state was second worst in the country when it came to disproportionately placing black men in long-term isolation.”
The exhibit opened at the Ives branch of the New Haven Public Library on Jan. 30. After it leaves Sterling library, where it has been hosted since Feb. 5, it will move to the Lillian Goldman Library at the Law School until Feb. 18.