Colleen Lord Credit: Lisa Backus photo

Colleen Lord cried as she told a crowd of about 50 that their stories of solitary confinement while in state Department of Correction custody reminded her of her son Robby Talbot’s death while he was shackled and in isolation in March 2019.

“We need oversight, we need transparency, we need accountability” Lord said after explaining that her son died after correction officers used an unreasonable amount of a chemical agent to subdue him and then left him shackled and alone.

Lord and dozens of other supporters of the PROTECT, Promoting Responsible Oversight Treatment and Effective Correctional Transparency, Act met outside the Capitol Wednesday as the legislature convened for the 2022 session to encourage Gov. Ned Lamont to sign the bill if it comes across his desk a second time.

Lamont vetoed the legislation that would have required independent oversight of the DOC and limited solitary confinement and in-cell shackling at the last minute under pressure from unions representing correction officers.

Stop Solitary of Connecticut, which championed the bill, wants the legislation passed this session and then signed into law. Barbara Fair, a founding member of the organization, isn’t shy about pointing out to Lamont, who is running for re-election, that it was the cities who voted him in and it’s the cities that are the most impacted by incarceration.

“We put him in office, the very people that he has been indifferent to for the past four years,” Fair said.

Fair, whose son was placed in solitary confinement at Northern Correctional Institution at 17-years-old and others are calling for the bill to be resurrected with updates including a ban on in-cell shackling. The original bill called for six hours of out of cell time a day for inmates, mental health counseling for correction officers, more social contact with family and friends, and an expanded independent ombudsman program that would include the entire population, not just juveniles.

When he vetoed the law, Lamont issued an executive order in July that addressed several concerns laid out in the 2021 PROTECT Act including stipulations that inmates who are placed in restraints have to be monitored every four hours by a shift commander or a designee compared to the previous standard which was every 24 hours.

The order also required the agency to limit the use of isolated confinement on “vulnerable populations” including those under 18 or over 65, people with mental health needs, people with a developmental disability or a serious medical condition that cannot be treated in isolated confinement, women who are pregnant or postpartum or who have recently suffered a miscarriage or ended a pregnancy and people with a significant auditory or visual impairment.

DOC officials called the executive order a “heavy lift” that has taken months to implement. But as Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee observed, elements of the executive order would need to be codified in law or they could be rescinded at any time.

Any reforms that occur need to include oversight of the agency, said state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan. “Oversight and transparency,” said Eagan whose investigation into practices at Manson Youth Institution led to a federal review.

Child Advocate Sarah Eagan Credit: Lisa Backus photo

Eagan read from the federal Department of Justice report that concluded that isolation practices and the lack of mental health assessments and treatment at the prison violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the roughly 50 juveniles housed there.

“Incremental progress is not going to be enough,” Eagan said.

The current system that allows isolation as discipline is damaging people, said Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, one of several legislators who intend to keep fighting to get the bill passed a second time. “We’re going to keep talking,” said Porter who told the crowd that her son spent time in solitary confinement. “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

When Lord testified before the Judiciary Committee in 2021 in support of the PROTECT Act, she told members that her son was non-violent and laying down in a shower when correction officers used pepper spray to bring him into compliance.

He was awaiting a mental health evaluation and was being held on a breach of peace charge, Lord said. He died alone in isolation while shackled and unable to breathe, she told the committee. By the time correction officers checked on him, rigor mortis had set in, she said.

“DOC staff need training,” Lord said Wednesday as she held a photo of her son. “They need to be better at identifying mental illness and they need to be better at taking care of people in their care.”