A few years ago, the Stop Solitary CT advocacy group brought to Capitol Hill a replica of a cell used for solitary confinement. Lawmakers have been urged to step into the concrete and metal box, to experience part of what it’s like to be locked in isolated containment. Senator Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, had spent several hours there.
“This experience, even though I knew I could open the door, even though I knew I had total control, became disorienting,” Winfield said. “This question that has been brought before the General Assembly concerns how we treat people who have done things that brought them to our prisons, but who remain human beings, and whether or not we treat them as such. . “
The Senate voted 26-10 Friday to pass a bill which would limit the use of solitary confinement by the Corrections Department and expand a watchdog office to investigate complaints made by any of the more or less 8,950 people in Connecticut jails and jails.
“How we treat our prisoners defines us,” said Senator Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor. “Today we have the opportunity to be better than we have been.”
During the bill’s public hearing, Ministry of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros said he was amending the ministry’s use of restrictive housing status to increase prisoners’ out-of-cell time.
“Some of the Senate Bill 1059 proposals are already being addressed by me and my staff, but perhaps not to the extent or at the speed that supporters want,” Quiros said.
Winfield told the Senate on Friday that he had heard similar promises in the past.
“And year after year after year after year, I wait,” Winfield said. “And while I wait, the people in the system are waiting. But they’re not just waiting, they’re experiencing what it’s like to be in segregation as it’s currently set up. “
Winfield proposed some sort of compromise: The rule requiring inmates to have six and a half hours of time out of their cells per day would not come into effect until July 2022, giving DOC a full legislative session to come back and iron out the provisions of the bill with which they did not agree. And the DOC would have until 2023 before it was required to grant inmates restrictive housing status – a form of jail that can be held because of behavioral issues – six and a half hours of out-of-cell time each day. .
“If we can come to an agreement, that’s how we’ll change the law,” Winfield said. “And if we can’t, this law will come into effect. “
The vote comes after the Non-Partisan Office of Tax Analysis released a report predicting that the bill would cost the state around $ 20 million over each of the next two years, a price Winfield contested before lawmakers removed it from the Appropriations Committee.
Winfield introduced an amendment that removed some of the costs from the bill. His proposal removed the requirement that DOC provide free phone calls to inmates – a redundant measure, given the prison’s free phone call bill that won the last House call on Thursday night – and extended the length of time a doctor and therapist were required to assess a person before they were placed in segregation, potentially reducing costs for DOC.
He also clarified that the original tax bill contained an error, believing that the state should hire 12 mediators. The bill provides for the hiring of a single ombudsman.
A former correctional officer, Senator Paul Cicarella, R-North Haven, dispelled what he called myths surrounding solitary confinement in Connecticut jails. Not all correctional officers have the power to put someone in segregation, and they cannot do it just because someone looked at them badly. It’s not as if the prisoners are placed in a wire rack in the middle of a courtyard, left to cook in the sun without food for days.
“This is not, I’m sure, what Nelson Mandela had to endure in another country,” Cicarella said. “It’s not what you see on TV.”
Just because someone goes to jail doesn’t mean they stop “misbehaving,” Cicarella warned. There are still acts of violence in our prisons, he said.
“If we don’t give our officers the ability to hold people accountable for the actions that take place at this facility, we will be handcuffing our officers, and we know that is not a good thing,” Cicarella said. “It’s not going to make it a safe place.”
The most senior member of the Judiciary Committee, Senator John Kissel, R-Enfield, noted that incarcerated persons are placed in statutes according to the risk they pose to themselves or to others. Why cripple the DOC with a “one size fits all” approach, which removes a potentially useful disciplinary tool?
Winfield said there are exceptions in the bill where a prisoner could be subjected to solitary confinement longer than the bill otherwise allows, in the event of a facility being locked down or if another person does. facing imminent physical harm if that person was not in segregation.
“We understand that there are reasons why you might need to use segregation,” Winfield said.
However, Winfield noted, the overwhelming majority of those imprisoned are ultimately sent home. Very few are serving life sentences.
“They need to come back to communities as healthy as possible, because if we are concerned about what happens to the people whose conversation often involves – the victims – we don’t want to put the people who have been broken by our system in place,” Winfield said.
Another lawmaker who worked at DOC, Senator Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a 21-year veteran of the agency, said that when it started in the department, around 5% of the incarcerated population was considered to be in pain. chronic mental illness. Then, in the 1990s, Governor John G. Rowland closed two mental hospitals and the state did not fund community mental health services when institutions closed, making jails and jails de facto institutions. state for people with mental health needs.
As a result, Osten said, 28 percent of men in state correctional facilities are considered chronically mentally ill, as are 80 percent of women in York Correctional Institution, statistics relevant as lawmakers debate. the desirability of reducing DOC isolation for people with mental health conditions.
“And I continue to say today that if we are serious about dealing with the numbers of people in prison, the only way to deal with that is to deal with those people that our correctional officers are supposed to deal with day in and day out. -out – without the training to deal with someone with a chronic mental illness – and we expect them to handle this situation much like what we did with our police officers, where they are supposed to look after all kinds of people and understand all of their needs, without even really knowing what their needs may be, ”said Osten. “I will raise this question until someone starts to listen and someone starts to understand that if we don’t treat trauma, if we don’t treat chronic mental illness, we just have- Even to blame for the situations people find ourselves in, we only have ourselves to blame for what goes on within the walls of a correctional facility and on the streets.
An update of the red flag law
Shortly after the Senate passed the solitary confinement bill, it also gave the final passage to a measure that would modernize Connecticut’s first “red flag law”.
The current law has created a process for law enforcement officials to obtain a court order seizing the firearms of individuals considered to be an imminent risk to themselves or to others. The warrants expire after one year, forcing the authorities to return the weapons.
The updated version would allow guns to be retained for life if deemed necessary, allow police to seize weapons other than firearms and prohibit over a risk warrant from purchasing new firearms. while the mandate is in effect.
The bill was passed by the Senate 23-12. Kissel said the state already had strict gun laws and he feared the move would infringe on people’s constitutional rights.
“I just think the legitimate gun owners have done more than their fair share over the past few years,” he said. “And I don’t really see the need for further gun laws right here in the state of Connecticut at this time.”