DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros (CTNewsJunkie file photo)
DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros (CTNewsJunkie file photo)

After months of negotiations the state Department of Correction and Stop Solitary of Connecticut have reached an agreement to support a proposed bill with new language that would more tightly regulate solitary confinement and create an ombudsman and advisory committee to review policies and complaints.

“Collectively, Stop Solitary CT and the DOC focused on the objective of minimizing the long-term impact of incarceration, while simultaneously maintaining a safe and secure environment for our staff and the individuals in our custody,” said DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros during a public hearing Friday.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

But many correction officers who had not read the most recent changes to the bill were still dubious about the proposed law.  “We are already at a point where we feel our hands are tied, many of our past practices seem meaningless, and the incarcerated population has only grown more emboldened,” said Amanda Tower, a correction officer and union steward for AFSCME Local 391.

Legislators including Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, told several correction officers who testified against the bill that if they still had concerns after reviewing the most recent version of the proposed law to contact him. “This is still evolving,” Kissel said.

Quiros and advocates including Barbara Fair, a founding member of Stop Solitary CT negotiated until Thursday night to get a version of the bill that they felt would pass the House and the Senate and be signed by Gov. Ned Lamont who vetoed a similar version of the proposed law last year.

This time around Quiros and Stop Solitary focused on compromise, addressing Fair’s concerns while also ensuring the overall security and safety of inmates and staff, the commissioner said. The bill codifies some elements of an executive order that Lamont issued after the veto that increased out of cell time and restricted the use of isolation for some vulnerable populations.  

At the same time, Quiros maintained that the agency needed to continue the practice of strip searches, which would have been restricted in a previous version of the bill.

“I wish to thank Barbara Fair and Stop Solitary CT for their advocacy and willingness to understand the intricacies and challenges of our unique agency,” Quiros said. “As commissioner, I must prioritize the safety of people in our custody, DOC employees — who are not only correction officers but also teachers, chaplains, medical staff, mental health counselors, and addiction counselors—as well as volunteers and visitors.”

Fair has worked for years to make legislators and the public aware of the mental impact of prolonged isolation and other confinement tactics after her son was held in solitary confinement at Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s super maximum prison when he was 17.

“My son left Northern with a shattered mind, a broken spirit and the inability to function in a normal manner,” Fair told the Judiciary Committee. “He was sent to Garner [Correctional Institution] where DOC houses its seriously mentally ill. He was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and heavily medicated for that disorder yet I knew his mental decline was the direct result of the traumatic experience he endured. As a clinician I knew that kind of brain trauma at his age could be irreversible yet I continue to hope.”

The new version of the bill which previously was called the PROTECT Act would limit the use of isolation confinement, create an agency ombudsman who will have staff to field and investigate complaints, and create an advisory committee that would examine the work of the ombudsman and submit issues for review.

The advisory committee would be made up of experts who have experience with medical and mental health in prisons, at least three members with lived incarceration experience, and one experienced in the rights of incarcerated people and people who have demonstrated they support incarcerated people..

Under the new version of the law, no one under 18 could be placed in isolation. Those who are placed in isolation would be given reading and writing materials and would be provided two hours of out-of-cell time every day including one hour of recreation.

Inmates can only be placed in isolation after less restrictive measures are considered, according to the proposed law. Inmates in the general population must have four hours of out-of-cell time each day as of July 1, 2022. Out-of-cell time would increase to four-and-a-half hours a day as of Oct. 1, 2022, and five hours a day as of April 1, 2023.

The bill calls for the legislature to fund the advisory committee and the ombudsman which would likely have a staff of 8 to 10 people, Quiros said. 

Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee repeatedly said that he expected the most recent version of the bill to be approved by the committee next week.