The state officials announced that Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s only “supermax” prison, would close by July 1.

The announcement comes as good news for advocates who had been calling to close the maximum security prison or years.

“I’ve been waiting to hear those words for as long as I can remember,” said Barbara Fair, who has been advocating or an end to solitary confinement for decades after her 17-year-old son was placed in Northern CI for months in 1999. “Right now I am completely overwhelmed.”

Gov. Ned Lamont said the decision to close the facility was based on the state’s shrinking prison population and dropping crime rate. It was also based on “a major policy change in Connecticut when it comes to Northern,” said Lamont’s Chief of Staff Paul Mounds.

“New prison admissions in Connecticut have declined significantly over the last decade, and the incarcerated population is currently at a 32-year low,” Lamont said. “This is even as violent, high-risk inmates are serving more of their original sentences than ever before. Spending millions of dollars annually to operate facilities for a population that continues to get smaller and smaller is not a good use of resources, especially as we work to reduce the cost structure of state government.”

But union officials contend that the closure could have an impact on the state Department of Corrections attempts to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“Front-line corrections staff are concerned that closing state prisons will prove to be penny-wise and pound-foolish,” said Collin Provost, president, AFSCME Local 391 representing 1,500 DOC  employees including 140 at Northern CI. “Shoe-horning inmates into other facilities will undermine safety and security in the prisons and create more difficult conditions for offenders and staff.”

About 175 employees work at the prison, Provost said. He was told to be at Northern CI at 6:30 a.m. Monday for a management meeting, he said. DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros personally made the announcement about the closing of the prison to union leaders and then told first shift staff, Provost said.

The prison currently houses 65 inmates, state officials said. Northern CI has not had more than 100 inmates since July of 2020, officials said. At its peak the population at Northern CI was 510 in 2003. Closing the facility will save the state $12.6 million annually in operating costs, according to the governor’s office. 

“This is a day that I didn’t think would come,” said David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “It came because of people like Barbara and the families of those incarcerated there who refused to give up.”

McGuire is calling for the savings realized from closing the prison to go to the communities that have been negatively impacted by mass incarceration. The state’s prison population is 72% Black and Latino.

“They should be diverting that money to the communities that were the most harmed,” McGuire said. “It should go to health care, mental health care, re-entry and housing, all those components that desperately need an infusion of funding.”  

But Lamont said during an afternoon press conference that existing rehabilitative programming at the prisons would be “there” but the money saved from the closure would go toward cutting the state’s deficit.

The prison was used as a COVID-19 medical isolation unit during the pandemic. But Quiros moved the COVID unit to MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in September after conceding that inmates were hiding symptoms of the disease because they didn’t want to be transferred to Northern.

Union officials and employees however contend that a prison closure during the pandemic could risk lives. “We’re concerned that closing Northern will cause overcrowding, lead to more positives test results and limit the agency’s ability to quarantine,” Provost said. “The state and the DOC should think about repurposing Northern instead of shuttering it.”

Northern CI has come under fire in recent years from advocacy groups like Stop Solitary CT and the CT ACLU for the use of isolation and restraints at the prison which was built in 1995.

According to a lawsuit filed last week by Disability Rights Connecticut, inmates at Northern CI are often shackled in dirty isolation cells for indefinite periods of time. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of mentally ill inmates who DRCT contends are often punished by the DOC with harsh tactics for behaviors that are connected to their illness.

The closure falls in line with the Protect Act, a proposed bill that would place limits on the amount of time an inmate can be placed in solitary confinement and other prison reforms, said state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee.

“What you are seeing in us moving away from using Northern is part of the reforms that we’ve done over the past few years,” Winfield said. “We are evolving.”

Fair has rallied for ending solitary confinement for years and closing Northern CI since 2017 when Stop Solitary CT became active in the state. Her son testified before the legislature that the prison was a “just a crazy place, a lot of psychological torture. And I was 17.”

Fair was instrumental in getting a bill passed in 2017 that halted the practice of bringing juveniles to Northern CI for disciplinary action. She said she often recalls the Frederick Douglass quote, “power concedes nothing without a demand” when she’s working on behalf of the state’s inmates and their families. “If I don’t demand anything nothing is going to change,” she said.