To the Editor:
The old saying that “good intentions can lead to bad consequences” reminds me of why we have solitary confinement in the first place. It was a suggestion (with good intentions) that the Quakers came up with. Their intent was to place people in solitude with the Bible believing it would help incarcerated people get closer to God. They never intended their initiative would evolve into sadism and psychological torture inside Connecticut prisons. Their intent was never about isolating people as a punishment. It was never intended to become an acceptable trend to simply cage people for most of the day with no meaningful contact with others and no structured programming. It turned into that because correctional officers realized if they kept people caged for nearly the entire day their job would be easier and they could feel more safe for the 8 hours they had to be in this highly toxic and dehumanizing environment. They likely understood caging people like that would create violent rage. There would be less chance of violence erupting if everyone was under lock and key for days, weeks, months and years in the name of safety. Whose safety are we talking about? Certainly not those on lockdown for most of the day, or those who come into the prison with the desire to provide caring and compassionate services and certainly not the families and communities these people return. Decades ago Quakers publicly denounced solitary confinement and apologized for how their “good intentions” evolved into a human rights disaster. United Nations twice condemned Connecticut jails and prisons as “places of torture” as recently as February, 2020. In addition, the Department of Justice has condemned the same practice within Manson Youth facility located in Cheshire.
Stop Solitary CT has been working since 2016 to end the use of solitary in Connecticut. During weekly meetings with Dept. of Correction we listened to each other and decided in the interest of safety for all people involved, staff and incarcerated people that ending solitary could not be ended in its entirety right away and came to an amicable agreement to make incremental changes and so we set forth to come up with legislation to reduce the use of solitary and increase out of cell time in a more safe manner.
We wholeheartedly expected resistance from those who have enjoyed a lax job for years of simply keeping a large of the population caged. There was certainly the expectation they would resist any kind of change to their workday. It’s no surprise to hear a story or two of someone who committed a dangerous act recently to support their claims of “dangerous and violent” people who threatened the lives of others daily. Are there dangerous and violent people behind bars? Yes. Some came in violent and others became violent and dangerous after being caged like a wild animal for weeks, months, years. Isolation produces rage, anxiety and serious mental illness. If you placed your pet in a cage, isolated for weeks, months, years, neglected its basic needs, abused them, disregarded its need to socialize with others pets it too would become violent and dangerous. Human beings are no different. We are social beings.
I understand the fear officers now face at the thought of giving people more time out of cell. The consequences of what they have been allowed to get away with for decades is scary yet can not be the reason for keeping people caged. We need to ask ourselves how did we ever get to believing it’s okay to cage people? Almost all will be released and returned to their families one day. Who is safe when that happens?
In conversations with presidents of the union (including at least one published on this opinion page) it was said, “90% of incarcerated people are not a threat. They just want to do their time and go home.” If this is true then why are we treating the entire population as though they are a threat? What is the purpose of these horror stories about gangs and predators as though that’s the makeup of the incarcerated population. The resolve for me is to come up with humane ways to maintain the 10% of problematic people. Connecticut prisons may not be Shawshank prison. The comparison also doesn’t serve as an endorsement of how humane and rehabilitative Connecticut prisons are.
When Stop Solitary Ct spoke about people being caged for 72 hours at a time it is a documented fact corroborated by letters from the inside and from Department of Correction administrative staff who said because staff were not showing up during the pandemic there was no other choice but to keep people caged many times over the entire weekend.
The assertion that officers are “unarmed” is not an exactly honest statement. In volatile situations they have access to mace, pepper spray and dogs. They also have their cohort supporting them in whatever they choose to do.
The op-ed spoke to the threat of “warring gangs”. There is a separate highly restrictive housing unit for those “accused” of being in a gang and so there is no constant threat of “warring gangs”. They are allowed out of their personal cage for 2 hours of the day to spend in a larger cage for their constitutional right to daily “recreation”.
This false narrative that PROTECT Act will tie the hands of officers so they can’t do their job is just that, a false narrative. If people actually read the bill, SB459, they would see we are simply demanding humane treatment because we don’t want to see people returning home fractured in mind and broken in human spirit. Mental health providers in the communities where these people are returning have reported they are seeing a high increase of seriously mental ill people coming to them for treatment. Many will never recover from their carceral experience. Most are young people, mothers, fathers, husbands and wives. We just can’t continue to do what we’ve always done. It’s becoming catastrophic. Those who can’t do their humanely need to retire and Corrections needs to change the qualifications for this kind of work. What other profession, besides policing seeks candidates simply having a high school diploma or GED with military experience a preference? What kind of message are we giving in filling these positions with such low standards while naming it a profession?
The union says they want legislators to tour their prisons. I ask that they do just that, unscheduled and unrestricted. They need to visit the restrictive housing units where they may find people chained and shackled inside a locked cage. Tour Manson Youth facility where the Dept of Justice has come in and condemned for its treatment of youth as young as 14 years old. Tour Garner CI mental health unit where over 500 seriously mentally ill are housed. By all means tour these facilities and tell the story of what you see. They may be disgusted by how they have for decades funded this department without any independent oversight.
Stop Solitary CT demands only humane and rehabilitative treatment for incarcerated people. People are there to serve time or await their day in court. State sanctioned torture, neglect, abuse and death is not part of their sentence or detainment. We have people on our steering committee who know the inside truth. One left and suffers post-traumatic stress for all that she witnessed as an employee. Those who engage in the mistreatment of incarcerated people will deny their involvement and likely convince themselves that they must do what they do in the interest of keeping safe. I ask again who are they keeping safe?
Barbara Fair, LCSW
West Haven, CT
Stop Solitary Steering Committee and Organizer