Gov. Ned Lamont vetoed a bill on Wednesday that would have limited the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, saying that the bill would “put the safety of incarcerated persons and corrections employees at substantial risk.”
The veto overrode bi-partisan support for the bill in the state legislature earlier this month. The bill was approved in the Senate 26-10 and in the House 87-55 with some modifications.
The approved version of the bill, also called the PROTECT Act, stipulated that individuals receive at least 6.5 hours per day outside of their cells, barring a serious incident, and required mental health evaluations for those placed in isolated confinement.
The bill would have prevented the use of physical restraints except as a last resort, required video and audio taping of incidents when incarcerated persons were placed in isolated confinement and assigned the corrections ombudsman to be in charge of reviewing and investigating complaints from all individuals in Department of Correction custody, rather than just those under the age of 18.
Lamont instead chose to issue an executive order that requires incarcerated individuals to be given at least two hours outside of their cells per day. It also requires the Department of Correction to “make policy changes to limit the use of isolated confinement on members of vulnerable populations to the greatest extent possible.”
He said the bill placed “unreasonable and dangerous limits” on corrections’ officers’ abilities to use restraints. Lamont said that the 6.5 hour requirement went “far out of line with what has successfully been implemented in any other state.” He also wrote that the legislation posed a “safety risk” by requiring the department to allow someone with a criminal history to visit. Finally, he said that the section around the ombudsman caused problems around issues of confidentiality.
His executive order also requires the Department of Correction to submit a report by October 1 outlining steps they will take to decrease the use of in-cell restraints and to make contact visits accessible for inmates.
Lamont said that he “fully supported” the legislation’s goal of ending solitary confinement.
But, Barbara Fair, a member of the steering committee of Stop Solitary, a group that advocated for the passage of the bill, said that she didn’t buy the governor’s argument about safety.
“It’s a way of keeping business as usual. If he said that he supports us, then there was no reason to veto the bill,” she said. “Governor Lamont has never shown any concern for incarcerated people.”
Corrections officers have in the past told CT Examiner that physical restraints, solitary confinement and chemical restraints are necessary tools to keep officers and other prisoners safe and secure.
Hope Metcalf, executive director of the Orville H. Schell Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale University and a member of Stop Solitary, said the removal of key provisions of the bill meant issues of solitary confinement would continue.
“The governor’s executive order really does not even come close to addressing what the PROTECT Act did,” she said.
Metcalf pointed out that State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the main proponent of the bill, had discussed the bill with Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros, and that changes had been made to account for some of the concerns that the commissioner raised, such as the amount of time inmates were required to be outside their cells and who could authorize an individual to be sent to solitary confinement.
“It seems quite clear that this is a direct response to the politics of confinement and not to policy,” Metcalf said.
Winfield told CT Examiner that he believed the bill had addressed the issues that the governor brought up in his veto, and that the bill considered the safety of everyone in the prisons.
“I don’t need to express that I’m not happy that the bill got vetoed,” he said.
Winfield said that solitary doesn’t just restrict people’s movements, it affects who they are as human beings because of the toll it takes on their mental health.
“I think that we’re dealing with the lives of the people in our system,” he said. “We have to be very careful.”
Fair said that 90 percent of the people affected were Black and brown. She said that when these individuals are released back into their communities after experiencing solitary confinement, they face mental health issues that then make the communities unsafe.
“That concern doesn’t go to Greenwich,” she said. “It goes to Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport. It’s not making anyone safe by caging someone like an animal for 22 hours a day.”
Fair also said that she doesn’t trust that some of the tactics allegedly used at the supermax Northern Correctional Institute, which was closed three weeks ago, won’t be implemented at other facilities in the state. In March, the group Disability Rights Connecticut filed a lawsuit against the Department of Correction in the name of three individuals who claimed to have suffered isolation and shackling while in the prison.
Metcalf criticized the governor for refusing to meet with any of the members of the Stop Solitary group. She also pointed out the tenuousness of the executive order — unlike a piece of legislation, the governor could revoke the order at any point, or his successor could undo the order, leaving them in the same place they started.
“He has directly undermined the democratic process,” she said.
But Winfield, who has worked on the bill for years, said he’s not finished yet.
“I think anybody who knows me knows I will make an attempt to bring this bill back,” he said.
Fair said that right now, she’s tired. It’s taken her a lot of energy, she said, trying to get this bill passed. However, she said she knows they have to keep bringing the issue forward.
“We just have to keep fighting,” she said. “We can’t just give up, because there are people suffering every single day under these conditions.”
Kevnesha Boyd, a member of Stop Solitary and counselor who worked in the state’s Department of Correction for four years, said she thought it was wrong for the governor to have waited until the last minute to veto the bill.
“Whatever the opposition was, we could have worked through it,” she said. “There was time for conversation. The governor has let the people down.”