Courtesy of CT-N
Child Advocate Sarah Eagan (Courtesy of CT-N)

HARTFORD, CT — The Correction Department has continued to put youthful offenders in solitary confinement in adult prisons in Connecticut despite the passage of legislation prohibiting the practice in 2017, Child Advocate Sarah Eagan told the Judiciary Committee.

Eagan told the Judiciary Committee, which is considering legislation to ban the use of solitary confinement at all of its facilities, that her investigation found youth, mostly boys ages 15-17, were left in their cells up to 23.5 hours per day. During that time they were not getting education or other rehabilitative programming.

Eagan said part of the problem is that the legislature failed to define “solitary confinement,” when they passed legislation banning the practice, which is broadly defined as placing a prisoner alone in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact or interaction.

The 2017 law defines it as the “practice of placing an inmate on restrictive housing status following a determination that such inmate can no longer be safely managed within the general inmate population of the correctional facility.”

It’s not called “solitary confinement” by correction officers at Manson Youth Institute. Rather, it’s called “Confined to Quarters Extended,” but it should not be considered anything less than solitary confinement, Eagan said.

Eagan said the boys at Manson Youth Institute call it “the Box,” which is a practice where the youth are confined to their cells as a disciplinary sanction for 23.5 hours per day. They come out for a half hour to take a shower or make a phone call. One youth was placed in confinement for 70 days over a 9 month period, according to Eagan’s six month report, which covered a period between January 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018.

Eagan said most of the boys placed in confinement have mental health issues and special education needs.

When they leave their cells for a shower or even a visit with an investigator from Eagan’s office, they are shackled.

Assistant Child Advocate Heather Panciera said one boy was so traumatized that he would only speak with them through the window of his cell even though he was given the opportunity to leave the cell for the interview.

Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said banning solitary confinement should be the first step of many.

“There’s a whole lot wrong with this system,” Porter said.

She said she doesn’t doubt that officers have concerns about their physical safety, but doesn’t believe solitary confinement is helping the situation.

“It’s like going to the zoo and sticking your hand in the lion’s den and thinking you’re going to come back with your hand intact,” Porter said.

Porter said there are kids who are in their cells 23 hours a day who don’t even have the ability to flush their own toilets.

“You talk about dehumanizing. You strip people of their humanity, ” Porter said, adding, “When you cage people like they’re animals they’re going to rebel.”

The legislation the Judiciary Committee is considering would ban the use of “administrative segregation” or “restrictive housing” for all prisoners in Connecticut starting Oct. 1, 2019.

Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook submitted written testimony in opposition to the legislation in which he said that there is no state in the country that operates prisons “with this extreme restriction on its ability to ensure that prison environment is safe for its employees, inmates, and general public.”

Cook said currently out of a population of about 13,300 offenders there are 29 offenders on “restrictive housing” status, which means only 0.2 percent of the total population has been placed in “administrative segregation.”

Cook said inmates who earn administrative segregation generally include an inmate who escapes from custody, one who assaults an agency employee, or an incident involving the use of a dangerous weapon.

He said the department is currently reviewing its procedures for administrative segregation and restrictive housing status.

Last year, Congress passed the First Step act which prohibits the use of solitary confinement as punishment and permits room confinement only when youth behavior poses a risk of physical harm. The youth must be released after three hours and if the facility can’t do that then they need to transfer the youth to another facility where services can be provided, according to Eagan.