He was just one of many Tuesday left by themselves under a fluorescent light in a small cell with a bunk, but unlike the estimated 80,000 inmates nationwide in solitary confinement, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, was able to leave after two hours.
The cell was a replica built by lawyers, psychiatrists and religious leaders who are bringing a national movement to limit the use of solitary confinement to Connecticut.
Lawmakers and visitors to the state Capitol are being encouraged to experience what it would be like to be in solitary confinement. There’s a sign-up sheet where anyone willing can sit by themselves in the cell where they can hear the hum of the light and recorded sounds from an actual prison in Maine.
The cell has been to the New Haven Free Library and the Yale University campus. It will be on display in the south atrium of the state Capitol through March 2.
“Our goal is to provide members of the community with an opportunity to experience isolation, to learn about its harms, and to engage in advocacy for limiting its use,” Rev. Allie Perry, board president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said.
Solitary confinement is the practice of placing a prisoner alone in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact or interaction. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, prolonged solitary confinement is torture. On any given day, however, around 80,000 people in the United States are being held in solitary confinement.
“Solitary confinement costs too much, does nothing to improve public safety, and can exacerbate or even cause mental illness,” David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU-CT, said. “If Connecticut is truly committed to creating rehabilitative prisons, solitary confinement simply does not belong. It is time for our state to protect vulnerable prisoners, stand up for justice, and promote public safety by permanently reforming long-term isolation.”
Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said at the start of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration there were over 200 people in solitary confinement, now they’re down to 35.
“They’ve currently done a good job,” Doyle said. “The legislation is to codify what they’re practicing today.”
There’s no attempt in Connecticut to eliminate solitary confinement completely, but the goal is to use it sparingly and on the most extreme cases. He said they’re not proposing a ban, but “setting parameters to reduce its use.”
He credited Winfield with raising the issue this year. The concept will be raised by the Judiciary Committee, but they have yet to settle on the exact language.
“Solitary confinement is cruel and unjust. It breaks people. It robs them of their health, hope, and ability to return to Connecticut families and communities as rehabilitated members of society,” Winfield said. “It is time for my colleagues in the General Assembly to reform solitary confinement in our state.”
Edwin Cay, a correction officer with AFSCME Local 391, said back in the day they would lock a prisoner in solitary confinement and “throw away the key,” but these days “it’s impossible to do that.”
He said the medical staff will come and talk to the inmate and evaluate the inmate while they are in a cell segregated from the rest of the prison population.
He said mental health staff and clergy both have the ability to talk to an inmate that’s in solitary confinement “especially when they’re a danger to themselves.” He said they even call family members to see if they’re willing to talk to the inmate.
“It’s not what the average person thinks when they watch Shawshank Redemption,” Cay said. “It’s a great movie, but that’s just Hollywood.”
Changes to solitary confinement or restrictive housing is a topic that’s being discussed nationally by the American Correctional Association, Cay said.
In Connecticut, housing a prisoner in solitary confinement, according to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture costs an average of twice as much as housing a prisoner in general population. The annual cost of incarcerating one inmate in Connecticut is $50,262. The annual cost of incarcerating one inmate at Northern, a level five facility in Somers, is $100,385.
The campaign agrees that the use of solitary confinement has gone down under Correction Commissioner Scott Semple and his predecessor, so the legislation is expected to help make those improvements permanent.