Sen. Gary Winfield sits in the replica of a solitary confinement cell
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, sits in the replica of a solitary confinement cell for two hours on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2017. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

After a few minutes of discussion Thursday, for the second time, the Judiciary Committee approved a bill to limit solitary confinement in the state’s prisons and provide more oversight for the state Department of Correction.

But after a bruising defeat last year when the legislature approved a similar bill only to have Gov. Ned Lamont veto it, advocates, including Stop Solitary Connecticut, plan to keep up the heat.

“This is the first step of many before we can say our prisons in Connecticut are treating people humanely,” said Barbara Fair, a founding member of Stop Solitary CT who admitted she was excited that the bill will now move on to the Senate. “I was surprised by some of the people who voted in favor. They opened their hearts and their minds.”

Fair and representatives from the DOC, including Commissioner Angel Quiros, spent weeks discussing the proposed legislation, SB 459, to reach a compromise that would keep staff and inmates safe, the Commissioner told members of the Judiciary Committee during a public hearing last week.

“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,” Quiros said.

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

Stop Solitary CT made a point of talking to a wide variety of people to come to a compromise, Fair said. “This is a huge step, and I’m so much more grateful,” Fair said. “We talked to the DOC, the governor’s office, union presidents and I think talking to all of those stakeholders made a difference.”

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 an earlier draft of the bill.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, credited Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, with keeping the discussion on the proposed changes to DOC policy alive for years until legislation could be crafted.

Minutes before the vote, Kissel, who is the Senate’s ranking member on the committee, pointed out that his district has the most prisons of any state Senate seat. He commented that  Correction Department staff grapple every day with dealing with violent inmates. But Kissel said he recognized that Quiros was in support of the bill and had worked with Fair to craft legislation that could pass.

“Last year, I voted against it and it passed, but I was thankful Governor Lamont vetoed the bill,” Kissel said. This year he joined most Democrats and several Republicans in voting in favor of the proposed legislation. “I applaud everyone who was sitting at the table discussing this,” he said.

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.

Fair believed the voices of incarcerated individuals who spoke during the public hearing, and their families who were struggling as their loved ones suffered, made a difference. “I think they took in all of those voices,” Fair said.

The new version of the bill, which previously was called the PROTECT Act, would limit the use of isolation confinement, and create and fund an agency ombudsman with staff to field and investigate complaints, and an advisory committee to examine the work of the ombudsman and submit issues for review. No price has been attributed to the initiatives yet.

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 would only be permitted to be placed in isolation after less restrictive measures are considered. 

Inmates in the general population must have four hours of out-of-cell time each day as of July 1. Out-of-cell time would increase to four-and-a-half hours daily as of Oct. 1, and five hours a day as of April 1, 2023.