Advocates of Prison Reform Aim to Overhaul State’s Solitary Confinement

The closure of Northern Correctional Facility in Somers, which Gov. Ned Lamont officially announced earlier this month, is a victory for prison reform activists that has taken years. 

But for human rights lawyer Hope Metcalf and State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, it’s only the beginning. 

As executive director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale University, Metcalf has been working with a team of lawyers to represent the nonprofit Disability Rights Connecticut in a lawsuit against the Connecticut Department of Correction alleging the “the persistent and deliberate abuse of people with mental illness [through prolonged] isolation and sensory deprivation, and forcible in-cell shackling.”

While many of these incidents are alleged to have happened at Northern, Metcalf said that the closing of the facility changes little for her team’s lawsuit. 

“The state has said nothing about changing the longstanding policies that have permitted the abuse of extreme isolation,” said Metcalf. 

In support of the effort, Winfield has drafted legislation that would limit the use of solitary confinement — so called “restrictive housing” — by the Department of Correction.

Winfield says that the change is needed if these incarcerated individuals are going to become productive citizens after their release from prison. 

“I think if we are going to bring people back into society, we have to be circumspect about what we do to them in captivity,” said Winfield. 

Under current Department of Correction rules, there is no limit to how long an individual may remain in solitary confinement. 

“I think if we are going to bring people back into society, we have to be circumspect about what we do to them in captivity,” said Winfield. 

The draft legislation would limit solitary confinement to no more than 72 consecutive hours and no more than 72 hours total in any 14-day period. In those situations, the bill requires that all other efforts are  exhausted first, that there is monitoring to ensure the prisoner’s safety and well-being, and that the person be released as soon as the threat of danger has passed. The bill would also guarantee a minimum of eight hours each day outside of cells, unless otherwise required by emergency or in response to “imminent physical harm.”

Prisoners in restrictive housing under current rules are allowed just one hour of recreation per day, five days per week, and three 15-minute showers. They are otherwise confined to their cells.

Physical restraints, according to draft language in the bill, are to be limited to extreme emergency cases, and for no longer than 4 hours at a time, with a visit by a doctor every two hours to ensure that the restraints aren’t impeding circulation or causing pain. Pharmacological restraints are to be only be used in a psychiatric emergency, and under supervision of a physician.

The legislation would also prohibit solitary confinement for individuals under the age of 25 and over the age of 65, pregnant inmates, people with a diagnosed mental illness, developmental disability or serious medical condition. 

Solitary by the numbers

According to a survey completed by the Department of Correction, prisoners can be placed in solitary confinement for attempting to escape, for possession of a weapon, and for violence to staff members or other prisoners. 

The Department of Correction defines restrictive status as 22 or more hours in a cell for 15 days or more. An additional 297 inmates spent 19-21 hours daily in their cells for more than 15 days. 

In figures provided for July 2019, of the 106 individuals placed in restrictive housing, 50 spent between three months and a year there. Twenty nine spent more than one year in restrictive housing, and five spent between three and six years in these conditions.

Of those 106 inmates, 82 were placed in solitary confinement for “membership in a security risk group”  or gang. 

All three of the people represented in the lawsuit — 26-year-old Kyle Lamar Paschal-Barros, 34-year-old Kezlyn Méndez and 29-year-old Tyrone Spence — have spent long periods of time in solitary confinement and have undergone multiple periods of restraint. 

The lawsuit alleges that despite a stated policy that self-harm and posing a threat to oneself are not valid reasons for solitary confinement, the Department of Correction transferred Paschal-Barros from Garner Correctional Facility to Northern after attempting to hang himself.

Paschal-Barros was placed in Northern from January 2017 through May of 2018, and was later returned to Northern in October of 2018. He remains there today. 

The lawsuit alleges that he spends 22 hours each day in his cell, and has been shackled more than 10 times, each in response to a mental health crisis. 

Mendez has been in and out of Northern six times and has been shackled three times, each for a period of between 24 and 72 hours. Spence was restrained more than 50 times in his time at Garner and Northern, according to court documents.

All three prisoners were diagnosed with mental illness prior to incarceration in the Department of Correction, and the lawsuit alleges that their time in these conditions has exacerbated their mental illnesses.

According to Department of Correction guidelines, a prisoner should be evaluated by a mental health counselor prior to being placed in solitary confinement, and that a mental health professional must review the case of an inmate after 30 days in solitary, and once every 90 days after.

Michael Liebowitz, a prisoner at Osborn Correctional Institution not involved with the lawsuit, told CT Examiner that he believes solitary is a necessary incentive to discourage prisoners from misbehaving. The problem, he said, is that he sees no rhyme or reason to when it’s used. 

“The policy needs to be implemented consistently, not haphazardly,” said Liebowitz. 

Correction officers respond

In response, correction officers told CT Examiner that physical restraints, solitary confinement and chemical restraints are necessary tools to keep officers and other prisoners safe and secure. 

“I know the public and all these advocacy groups are looking at taking away our tools, but we’re going to be left pretty soon with nothing,” said Sean Howard, a State of Connecticut correction officer and  president of AFSCME Local 387. “The safety of the officers is never taken into consideration.” 

Howard also told CT Examiner that how most people picture solitary confinement isn’t accurate. 

“I think the public has a misconception of what solitary confinement is,” said Howard. “This isn’t Shawshank, where we throw you into a dungeon and feed you a loaf of bread and a piece of water … you’re getting three meals. You’re getting a book to read.” 

Howard said that the department follows all the directives, that incidents are documented on video and that the inmates in solitary have the ability to dictate, through their own behavior, how quickly they will be released. 

According to Department of Correction rules, prisoners are allowed adequate food, clothing, hygiene products, books to read and paper and pencils to write letters. Cells “shall be well-ventilated, adequately lighted, appropriately heated and maintained in a sanitary condition at all times.” 

“I think the public has a misconception of what solitary confinement is,” said Howard. “This isn’t Shawshank, where we throw you into a dungeon and feed you a loaf of bread and a piece of water … you’re getting three meals. You’re getting a book to read.” 

The lawsuit alleges that the department has failed to abide by these standards.

The lawsuit alleges that Mendez and Paschal-Barros were stripped naked except for a jumper or “safety gown” and left in cold cells. At one point, the lawsuit said, Paschal-Barros was deprived of books, which were “an important tool for his mental wellbeing.” The main source of daylight in these cells, said the lawsuit, is a four-inch wide “slot” at the back of the cell. 

Currently, Department of Correction rules allow for two non-contact social visits per week, but the lawsuit alleges that this rarely occurs in practice. 

Winfield’s bill would allow incarcerated individuals one sixty-minute in-person visit, two phone calls, and unlimited letters each week, and would prohibit These visits could not be taken away as punishment and inmates would not be in restraints during the visit. 

Winfield’s bill would also require the formation of a nine-member Correction Accountability Commission that would include four members who have either been incarcerated or had a family member who was incarcerated, and a department ombudsman. The ombudsman would review complaints, assist incarcerated individuals and make policy recommendations. 

Not just a matter of money 

In a statement released last week, Lamont explained that the closing of Northern would not only save the state $12.6 million, but that it made sense in light of the state’s declining prison population — at one time, Northern held 510 prisoners, but by the beginning of February the prison housed just 65.

The state also announced plans to close two additional prison facilities.

But those changes are also opposed by correction officers on the grounds that the closure of Northern or any other facility would leave the state vulnerable to overcrowding if a jump in crime were to send more prisoners into the system.

Meanwhile, Metcalf and Winfield expressed a different concern: that without changing written departmental policy, another prison could simply become a new version of Northern. 

“Too often, with these tools … it’s amazing how disproportionately men and women of color end up dead,” said Reyes. 

“We need to make sure this is not just a matter of the state saving money,” said Metcalf. 

State Rep. Renaldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, who has also proposed a bill to eliminate solitary confinement, said that issue was a matter of racial equity. 

“Too often, with these tools … it’s amazing how disproportionately men and women of color end up dead,” said Reyes. 

“Everybody who’s involved needs to do better,” he said. “It’s the 21st century.”  

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