walker stonrg / ctnewsjunkie
Sen. Gary Winfield outside the replica solitary confinement cell in the lobby of the state Capitol (walker stonrg / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, joined Stop Solitary CT in unveiling a 5,000-pound replica prison cell at the state Capitol Tuesday as part of an effort to end solitary confinement in Connecticut’s prisons.

Stop Solitary CT’s website says the replica will allow those who visit to “experience the horror, isolation, and dehumanization that is solitary confinement.” It will be in the lobby of the Capitol until March 4.

Members of Stop Solitary CT argue that increased isolation in prisons may achieve the very opposite goal of rehabilitating inmates.

“Correction means to correct something. But this is not correction, this is torture,” said James Tillman, who was wrongly convicted and served more than 18 years in prison for a rape he never committed.

Tillman said three of those years were spent in solitary confinement at the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers.

“To this day I still get chills,” Tillman, a member of Stop Solitary CT, said.

The Judiciary Committee plans to raise a bill to legislate the end of solitary confinement in Connecticut. The issue was raised as a concept two weeks ago.

Winfield said there is an untold lasting impact that solitary confinement can have on those who are forced to endure it. “At this point we know that many of these people return to our communities, the question is what have we already done to these people,” he said.

Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook expressed sympathy for how solitary confinement was handled in the past, but insisted that the DOC has overhauled its operations to be far more humane in recent years.

“It’s not where it was 10 to 15 years ago, or even 5 years ago for that matter,” Cook said Tuesday.

Correction officers present at the Capitol Tuesday disagreed with the characterization of solitary confinement. They blamed a sensationalized view of solitary confinement in the media for contributing to a misconception of how the system has evolved over time. Solitary confinement, according to two correction officers, doesn’t exist as it’s being portrayed by activists who want to end the practice.

The inmates are allowed phone, shower, and have recreational time in addition to being allowed out of their cells to attend a variety of programs, Michael Vargo, vice president of AFSCME local 1565, stressed.

Advocates for abolishing prison isolation also argue that the practice overwhelmingly targets people of color.

Barbara Fair, a New Haven activist who said her son was indelibly changed by his exposure to solitary confinement at the age of 17, likened the practice to a modern form of slavery in that those who support its usage “have either lost humanity or don’t understand the humanity of those in there. No longer do they use the whip, they use mind control.”

It’s hoped that Connecticut will soon join the ranks of nine other states that have passed comprehensive system-wide reforms to their solitary confinement practices in recent years.

While the state was praised for legislation passed in 2017 to end solitary confinement for juvenile inmates, a 2019 report revealed the practice was still occurring for juveniles in adult facilities. Many blame the legislature’s failure to properly define “solitary confinement” as allowing correction officers to continue many of these same practices under a new designation: “confined to quarters extended.”

Cook pushed back on this assertion, however, claiming that “most of the time when I’m in, there are no juveniles that are being housed in those particular areas.”

He emphasized how small the number of actual inmates exposed to solitary confinement is in relation to the state’s total prison population. He said “.03% of our prison population is actually in that type of custody.”

Cook acknowledged that the DOC “knows that isolation is not good” but maintained a continued need for solitary confinement to protect prisoners from one another and safeguard facilities and correction officers from potential outbursts of violence.

“We’re doing everything we can to change that environment and speed up the process of getting people out of those situations,” he said.

Stop Solitary CT is also pushing to close Northern Correctional Institution, which is Connecticut’s only super-maximum security prison.

“I don’t have any plans at this time to do that,” Cook said.

He said they are constantly evaluating their facilities and units to best manage the prison population, which is currently under 13,000, the lowest level in 25 years.