As a number of former prisoners, activists, Department of Correction staff and ministers urged the Connecticut legislature to eliminate solitary confinement, Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros asked instead for the time to lead the agency through a shift in culture.
In a public hearing on Monday, a number of former prisoners testified on Senate Bill 1059, which would limit the use of isolated confinement and restraints, and would forbid the use of solitary on individuals with a diagnosed mental health condition.
Daryl McGraw, who spent 10 years in Connecticut prisons, testified about his experiences in solitary confinement.
“I’m very fortunate to be here, but I’m not fortunate to forget the memories of being strip-searched and put in a cold cell in my underwear,” said McGraw.
Tracie Bernardi, who spent 23 years in prison, including seven years in restrictive housing, also testified in support of the legislation.
Struggling with unstable mental health, Bernardi said, she eventually tried to hang herself, and was saved only when another inmate, on her way to make a phone call, glimpsed her through the window of her cell.
“Even people with 30 year sentences, like me — we come home,” she said. “Don’t continue to do this to people.”
Bernardi now works with the American Civil Liberties Union advocating to reduce the prison population. She was joined by representatives of Connecticut Bail Fund and Stop Solitary CT who also testified in support of the bill.
Pressures on staff
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.
Joanna Fisco, a former registered nurse in the Department of Corrections, said that the lack of mental health support and de-escalation skills for the staff was creating an environment where prisoners were being treated with a “severe lack of respect and regard for their dignity.”
“The staff, both nursing and custody, were clearly suffering from burnout,” she said. “A correctional environment can be severely draining and mentally taxing.”
She said the pressure to maintain control drove staff to place prisoners in solitary, which she characterized as overused and ineffective.
Department of Correction responds
Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros called the bill “so prescriptive, expansive and costly … that I cannot envision any Commissioner being able to agree to, or successively execute [it] without major negative consequences.”
Quiros said that he had already tried to make many of the changes outlined in the bill, including increasing residents’ time outside of their cells and decreasing the length of time individuals spend in restrictive housing. But Quiros said that the changes might not be “to the extent or speed” asked for in the legislation.
The bill would require that correction staff allow inmates out of their cells for at least eight hours each day, a change that Quiros said would be difficult given the lack of space in prisons. He said that in some of the county jails, letting 75 or 100 people out into the recreation area would lead to overcrowding, and would require additional resources.
Quiros also testified that reducing the use of solitary confinement could put other prisoners at risk.
“I don’t want to make changes [so] that I end up in a year or two in front of this committee, and the committee questions me, why are the assaults on the individuals under your custody so high?” he said.
Quiros said he was open to the idea of having an ombudsman who could evaluate procedures and inmate complaints, a position which, Quiros said, had existed with the department until 2009, when it was eliminated because of budget constraints.
Quiros said that he was also working on expanding training in de-escalation techniques and ensuring correction officer access to mental health care. The bill would include correction officers in a list of professions granted workers’ compensation benefits for mental health treatment, but Quiros suggested that this should be extended to all Department of Corrections staff, given that they all respond to potentially violent incidents.
Ultimately, he asked that the legislature give him time to implement policies, rather than legislating them in a bill.
“Allow me the opportunity to lead this agency through a shift in culture,” he urged. “Hold me accountable.”