ctnewsjunkie file photo
Sen. Gary Winfield in a replica solitary confinement cell that was on display at the state Capitol. (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT – The Judiciary Committee passed a bill Tuesday to reduce the use of solitary confinement in Connecticut prisons.

The bill, which was approved by a 27-14 vote, is now headed to the House of Representatives.

Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, has 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.

The bill has been championed by Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who in March spent two hours in a replica-like solitary cell to experience the feeling of isolated confinement.

“We are concerned about the effects of isolated confinement on the individuals we place in isolated confinement,” Winfield said. But those concerns don’t just end with the inmates.

“There is a concern about those who have to deal with people in isolated confinement,” Winfield added.

The cell Winfield spent two hours in was a replica built by lawyers, psychiatrists and religious leaders who are using it to build a movement to limit the use of solitary confinement to Connecticut.

The bill wouldn’t necessarily change anything Connecticut is currently doing.

Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, pointed out it would simply codify the Correction Department’s current practice.

The bill states that isolated confinement shall be used only to protect against a threat of imminent physical harm to correctional staff or other inmates – and only for the shortest duration possible to protect against such harm; no inmate shall be assigned to solitary for more than 15 days without a hearing where correctional officials would need to show why continued isolation is necessary. Also for any inmate who has spent more than six months in solitary, and is not a physical threat to other inmates or correctional officers, an alternative placement should be found.

The bill would also require the Department of Correction to provide training to employees who interact with inmates who have been isolated from the rest of the prison population.

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.

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.

During the public hearing phase on the bill, there was opposition, including the testimony of Brian Anderson, lobbyist for AFSCME Council 4, a union of 35,000 public and private employees, including 5,000 correctional workers.

“Administrative segregation is an important tool for keeping inmates, the public and staff safe in regards to corrections facilities functioning properly,” Anderson testified. “A tool is needed to change the behavior of violent or disruptive inmates. Administrative segregation provides a safe place to house inmates who are a threat to other inmates or staff.”

Anderson said he supported the part of the legislation which would provide for increased training and wellness opportunities for correction officers.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a particular problem for correctional employees,” Anderson said.

But he worries that there wouldn’t be any money in the budget for those types of programs.

For some Judiciary Committee members the issue hit close to home.

“I have six correctional facilities in my district,” Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who voted against the bill, said.

“I’m very supportive of the direction of the bill,” Kissel said, but he added that he wanted to study the language “more carefully” before giving it his approval to make sure he’s satisfy that there would be no safety concerns to correctional staffers.

A handful of Republicans voted in favor of the bill.

Another bill that received some bipartisan support Tuesday was Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s legislation to change the bail system.

Malloy’s administration worked out a compromise with the bail bond industry and was able to get the ranking Republicans on the Judiciary Committee to support the measure, which passed 23-15.

The bill ends bail for most low-level crimes and requires the administration to work with the industry on setting up a fund for indigent individuals. The bill doesn’t get rid of bail for individuals charged with violent crimes.

The Judiciary Committee also approved another bill Tuesday designed to reform the investigatory grand jury system to improve investigations of criminal conduct and abuse of governmental authority.

The bill would allow for a more expeditious grand jury process. It passed by a 38-2 vote.

“We have debated this bill every year” Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said.

He said he’s glad prosecutors and defense attorneys were able to agree on a compromise.

“Everybody was pulling to make this happen,” Tong said.

The bill “would enable Connecticut’s prosecutors to request subpoena authority from a grand jury and obtain evidence of crimes while recollections are still fresh and before documents and other tangible evidence are destroyed,” the Criminal Justice department said in written testimony.

In the federal criminal justice system, and in most states, prosecutors work with sitting grand juries to investigate allegations of criminal activity. Connecticut and the chief state’s attorney currently does not have that subpoena authority, which means most of the political corruption in Connecticut has been prosecuted by the federal government and not the state.