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A federal judge is encouraging Disability Rights Connecticut to enter into mediation with the Department of Correction to resolve issues related to the shackling and isolation of mentally ill inmates alleged in a lawsuit filed earlier this year.

U.S. District Judge Kari Anne Dooley will decide in the next few weeks whether the DOC may withhold evidence while mediation is taking place, she said.

“I don’t think these issues are going to go away,” Dooley said. “I’m not convinced litigation is that path (to resolving the issues) because it rarely is.”

The attorney general’s office, which is representing the DOC in the lawsuit, filed a motion to end discovery while Dooley considers their motion to dismiss the case.

In the meantime, Dooley repeatedly indicated in a hearing Thursday that she expected both sides to “come to the table” to discuss the in-cell shackling of mentally ill inmates whom the advocacy organization alleges are placed in isolation for prolonged periods of time.

DRCT is a federally mandated advocacy agency for people with disabilities including prisoners with mental health conditions. The lawsuit filed on Feb. 4 details “horrendous” conditions at the state’s super maximum security prison, Northern Correctional Institution. 

Four days after the lawsuit was filed, DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros announced that the agency will close Northern by July 1. Quiros and Roger Bowles, the warden at Northern, were also named in the lawsuit which was later broadened to include a prohibition of in-cell shackling and isolation for mentally ill inmates at every DOC prison.

The judge noted that the litigation is playing out as a bill winds its way through the legislative process that would require the DOC to limit isolation, ban abusive restraints, encourage social communication and ensure agency oversight and the closing of Northern.

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“Depending on how the events unfold, the issues (in the lawsuit) will be substantially narrowed,” Dooley said.

Dooley indicated that she was considering the stay on producing evidence until the legislative session ends on June 9.

Northern currently houses 43 inmates including several who are in the “risk security group” that would be subject to in-cell shackling or isolation, Assistant Attorney General Ed Rowley said. The agency has been moving inmates at a pace of one or two a day, to other facilities to prepare for Northern’s closure, he said.

Rowley argued that since the DOC is in “transition,” now would be a perfect time for both sides to “come to the table.”

But Attorney Kyle Mooney and a contingent of other attorneys including Dan Barrett and Elana Bildner from the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut representing DRCT want an upfront commitment from the DOC that they will consider ending isolation and in-cell shackling at all facilities before they are willing to enter mediation.

“We’ll sit down tomorrow,” Mooney said.

“I take issue with the fact they have to agree to your concerns before you’ll come to the table,” Dooley said.

The DRCT attorneys are seeking the medical records of every prisoner who has a mental health classification of 2 or above. That could mean the state would have to provide files for 6,400 current prisoners and possibly thousands more since DRCT also wants records for any prisoners who have been subject to isolation for the past five years, Rowley said.

The attorneys also want a “substantive” response to a letter they sent to the DOC in November pointing out concerns about mentally ill inmates being held in isolation and chains.

“To provide a substantive response is difficult without the parties coming to the table,” Rowley said.

His office is claiming it would be a burden to gather the documents and other requests for evidence while the judge considers the motion to dismiss.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court paints a stark picture of conditions at Northern, which was opened in 1995 as the state’s only maximum security prison to house high risk and death row inmates.

Kyle Lamar Paschal Barros, previously known as Deja Paschal, was shackled in his cell after a suicide attempt in 2018 that DOC officials deemed “non-lethal,” according to the lawsuit. His struggles with mental illness while incarcerated at Northern are well-documented, court papers said.

“Each time he was subjected to in-cell shackling, Northern staff left Mr. Barros naked (but for a safety gown) and chained in an unsanitary and cold ‘strip cell,’” the lawsuit said. “Mr. Barros felt as though he was trapped in a ‘cold cement doghouse,’ where he was forced to dump his food onto wax paper on the floor and eat like a dog.”

Barros, who remains incarcerated at Northern, recently was taken to Whiting Forensic Hospital due to a severe bout of mental illness, Mooney said during the hearing.

Dooley will issue a ruling on whether discovery will continue in the next few weeks, she said. She will address the motion to dismiss at a later date.