After successfully pushing to close the state’s only maximum-security prison this year, Connecticut activists are advocating for more reforms in the state’s solitary confinement practices.
The PROTECT Act — which stands for Promoting Responsible Oversight and Treatment, and Ensuring Correctional Transparency — was passed with bipartisan support by the legislative Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The bill would implement new limitations on solitary confinement and increase support for Department of Correction staff, among other policies. At the hearing, several activists spoke in favor of the bill, while CT DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros spoke against it. New Haven legislators Rep. Robyn Porter and Sen. Martin Looney are among the bill’s co-sponsors. The bill now awaits a vote on the House floor.
“Our legislators took a stand against state sanctioned abuse and suffering of people behind the walls of Connecticut’s prisons,” New Haven activist and Stop Solitary CT Steering Committee Member Barbara Fair wrote in an April 8 press release. “Legislators chose to close this ugly chapter in Corrections and demand humane treatment for all men, women and children held in State custody.”
If passed, the bill would prohibit the solitary confinement of incarcerated individuals for more than 72 hours in a 14-day period. Confinement of 16 hours or more consecutively would also become illegal, except in the case of a facility-wide lockdown, an imminent threat of physical harm to another incarcerated person or a request of protective segregation by the incarcerated person.
The bill also calls for the limiting of abusive restraint, especially for longer than four consecutive hours. Restraints include belts, handcuffs or chains that constrict an incarcerated person’s movement. Incarcerated individuals would also be allowed out of their cells for eight hours a day.
Under the bill, incarcerated people would be guaranteed a minimum number of free letters, phone calls and visits. Due to the pandemic, visitors currently cannot spend more than 30 minutes with incarcerated individuals more than twice a week, and Connecticut is known to be the state where prison phone calls are most expensive.
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer described the current CT DOC policies as almost amounting to torture.
“The DOC appears to routinely resort to repressive measures, such as prolonged or indefinite isolation, excessive use of in-cell restraints and needlessly intrusive strip searches,” Melzer wrote in a press release. “There seems to be a state-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, which may well amount to torture.”
The bill would also seek to promote correctional officer wellness by offering staff access to workers’ compensation for mental health conditions related to their work. In an effort to strengthen the public lever of accountability, the bill would also create a community advisory council of 5 to 9 Connecticut residents, one-third of whom must be formerly incarcerated people. This council can investigate complaints by incarcerated individuals and suggest improvements to the Department of Corrections based on the complaints.
Since the beginning of the year, the bill has enjoyed support from activists and incarcerated individuals. During the committee hearing, Tracie Bernardi, a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Smart Justice program who was formerly incarcerated for 23 years, spoke of her experience in seven years of restrictive housing — a practice in which incarcerated individuals who might pose a threat are kept in separate facilities. During this period, Bernard said she attempted to hang herself because of mental health issues that arose from the prolonged confinement.
“Even people with 30-year sentences, like me — we come home,” Bernardi said. “Don’t continue to do this to people.”
Joanna Fisco, a former registered nurse in the Department of Corrections, also spoke favorably of the bill. She said that staff members were suffering from burnout because the correctional environment can be “severely draining and mentally taxing.”
CT DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros vehemently opposed the bill. He said that the bill would be “so prescriptive, expansive and costly … that [he] cannot envision any commissioner being able to agree to, or successively execute [it] without major negative consequences.”
Quiros said that the provision requiring that incarcerated individuals be let out of their cells for at least eight hours would be infeasible due to the lack of space at many of the state’s incarceration centers. Allowing 75 or 100 individuals into recreational areas at a time, he argued, would also lead to an increased rate of assaults between incarcerated individuals.
Quiros told legislators he is in the process of implementing a version of most of the bill’s reforms. He asked for more time to implement such measures before further mandates on the extent of reforms are passed.
Eighteen states, including Connecticut, have passed bills that limit or prohibit solitary confinement in the United States.
Razel Suansing | firstname.lastname@example.org