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Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

On Friday, the Connecticut General Assembly Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on several prison reform bills that would phase out solitary confinement, repeal lien, establish correctional oversight and expand medical service.

During its 2021 session, the state legislature passed the PROTECT ACT, a bill aimed at establishing independent oversight of the prison system and reducing instances of solitary confinement. Gov. Ned Lamont vetoed the bill and replaced it with an executive order, which activists at organizations like Stop Solitary CT (SSCT) claim to be significantly less effective than the law. This year, activists and lawmakers are trying again to regulate the use of isolated confinement and ensure responsible oversight and accountability through SB 459. During Friday’s public hearing, Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros testified that SSCT has reached an agreement with the department on “substitute language” to the bill that would increase prisoners’ out-of-cell time and establish an independent oversight office for the prison system. 

“Connecticut Department of Correction knows that this will be an ongoing, continuing, evolving process so the bill will be enacted,” Quiros said. “I am committed and optimistic that through our joint efforts, Connecticut will remain at the forefront of progressive correction practice.”

Individuals share their experience with solitary confinement in Connecticut

At the hearing, many activists spoke about the physical and mental health harms associated with solitary confinement. According to testimony from Dr. Benjamin Howell, assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, dangerous occurrences in correctional settings include suicidal behavior, self-harm and violence. Harms of extreme isolation persist after release, Howell added. 

A number of testimonies against the practice were from formerly incarcerated people and members of their families. Stop Solitary CT cofounder Barbara Fair said that her youngest son was tortured inside of the now permanently-closed Northern supermax prison when he was 17.

“He left Northern with a shattered mind, a broken spirit and the inability to function in a productive manner,” Fair testified. “He spent time at Garner CI for the seriously mentally ill where he was heavily medicated. He was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and heavily medicated for that disorder yet I knew his mental decline was the direct result of human torture at a time when his brain was still developing.”

Colleen Lord, the mother of Robby Talbot, who died at New Haven Correctional Center in 2019, testified that Robby was pepper sprayed four times, kicked in the torso once and kept in his solitary confinement cell full of chemical agents, fully in chains.

“Abusive restraints, chemical agent torture and solitary confinement is imposed on non-threatening non-violent, vulnerable and compliant individuals simply for punitive reasons or convenience.” Lord said. 

According to Fair, Connecticut Department of Corrections is one of few states with no independent oversight and the only state that oversees its own health care for prisoners. Fair said that as a result, many incarcerated people end up living with chronic disease which diminishes their quality of life and reduces their life span.

Tracie Bernardi, who was formerly incarcerated for 23 years at York Correctional Institution, said that she now suffers from post traumatic stress, especially in the presence of correctional officers.

“Our communities are already suffering, the cities, especially hard for New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport.” Hartford city councilman Josh Michtom said. “And what exposing our residents to the abuses of prison without any check does is it sends folks back home, when they’ve done their time, [they are] more damaged … it’s just another downward punch by the system.”

Activists, correctional officers weigh in on solitary confinement reform

Under Lamont’s executive order last year, people in solitary confinement are allotted four hours outside of their cells each day, and the Department of Corrections can incarcerate people for 22 hours per day for up to 15 days in a row, or 30 days in a 60-day period if an “exception” is granted.

According to SSCT, this legislative session’s SB 459, also known as the PROTECT ACT, would promote responsible oversight, treatment and effective correctional transparency. 

SB 459 proposes that isolated confinement be used only as a last resort, for the shortest possible term, and never for more than 15 consecutive days (or 20 days total within any 60-day period), and all incarcerated people must have at least five hours out of cell per day unless isolated confinement is necessary to protect staff and incarcerated people.

SB 459 also proposes the creation of an Ombudsman and Advisory Commission for Correctional Oversight to evaluate the operations of prisons, jails and halfway houses throughout Connecticut. The commission will have the authority and responsibility to order unscheduled and unrestricted site visits, inspect Department of Corrections records and establish a confidential system to receive feedback from incarcerated people, family members and Department of Corrections personnel, all of whom will be protected from retaliation for cooperating with the commission. The commission will publish its findings and hold quarterly meetings.

In addition, SB 459 would seek to end the misuse of lockdowns and would ban training days and meetings as an excuse for lockdowns. It also requires that the Department of Corrections implement training and other strategies to support staff in mitigating trauma and its effects, such as burnout, substance abuse, aggression and suicide, according to SSCT.

SB 459 was widely supported by formerly and currently incarcerated people, their families, law experts like this trust contest attorney, mental health experts and social workers on Friday. Meanwhile, correctional officers testified in opposition to the bill.

“Pulling in and working with the Department of Corrections and then building in an ombudsperson, and building an advisory committee is a terrific, innovative, supportive infrastructure that enables understanding. You can’t undo solitary without knowing how it’s being used.” said Judith Resnik, professor at Yale Law School.

Correctional officers claim that the current executive order has already “emboldened these inmates and increased our incidents,” adding that SB 459 will put correctional officers and the incarcerated population’s safety at risk. Some argued that people in solitary confinement are not abused. 

Phillip Brown, a correctional officer for 19 and a half years, said that “offenders in administrative segregation are visited several times a day by staff. They are given at least two hours a day of recreation, they have access to TVs. It is important for this committee to take a tour during regular operations.”

Amanda Tower, who has worked as a correctional officer with the Department of Corrections for eight years, echoed Brown’s testimony. According to Tower, while more rehabilitative processes would greatly benefit the incarcerated population, the state government consistently failed to provide the necessary resources, staff and funding. Tower claimed that passing the bill will not change the inadequate budget, and the “so called reforms” have simply “consolidated the small percentage of offenders who are dangerous and disruptive.”

By contrast, according to testimony from the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, SB 459 recognizes the need for transparency and accountability at the Department of Corrections and the rights of an incarcerated person to be in the least restrictive environment necessary for the safety of themselves and others. 

“Essentially, this bill recognizes that incarcerated people are human beings and treats them as such,” the testimony reads.

State Sentencing Commission, activists express support for lien repeal

Law experts and formerly incarcerated people also called for the repeal of Connecticut’s incarceration lien during the public hearing through HB 5390, an act that repeals the requirement that prisoners must reimburse taxpayers for their stay in a correctional facility for up to 20 years after release from incarceration. 

“The Division voted in favor of this initiative in the Connecticut Sentencing Commission,” the Division of Criminal Justice wrote in testimony. “The successful reentry of formerly incarcerated individuals into society benefits everyone, and this bill certainly aids in that endeavor. While an argument could be made for purported “windfalls” of individuals winning multi-million dollar lotteries, the reality is that these laws generally seek to recoup moneys from small inheritances or personal injury settlements that compensate for proven injuries.” 

Fredrick Hodges, who was incarcerated for 17 and a half years, said that after he was released, he had a car accident and was compensated for $21,000 but he ended up getting only $3,000 because the rest was used to pay for his lien.

“The cost of incarceration lien for me, who has completed my sentence, [told] me that 20 years after my sentence, I still owe the state.” Hodges said. “[It] really served [as] bondage to me.”

According to Jenny Carroll, the director of the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law and visiting professor at Yale Law School, lien has a devastating impact on formerly incarcerated people, their family loved ones and communities. She said that lien perpetuates intergenerational debt and barriers to reentry as individuals have struggled under the weight of the lien, which at the current rate of over $81,000 per year can exceed a million dollars in accumulation.

Carroll also pointed out that the state largely fails to provide incarcerated people with notice of lien, which is necessary for them to engage in informed and meaningful decision making. Most formerly incarcerated people only know about the existence of lien when “some portion of their legal settlement or inheritance was claimed by the state, or through whisper network and Connecticut’s prison system.”

The State of Connecticut Sentencing Commission also testified in support of HB 5390. The commission wrote in their testimony that “members have noted in their deliberations that these policies generate barriers to reentry and encourage a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape. Formerly incarcerated people face challenges finding employment and housing, and these liens make it all the more difficult to make progress.”

121 people testified over the course of about seven and a half hours at the public hearing.