In Connecticut, Opponents of Solitary Confinement Renew the Fight for Strong Legislation and Independent Oversight

by | March 18, 2022

At Connecticut’s Cheshire Correctional Institution, Hamid Muhammad and his blockmates are often locked in their cells for upwards of twenty-two hours a day. The lockdowns have put tremendous stress on the men, according to Muhammad, and when they are let out, guards sometimes curse at them and encourage fights. “Tempers are raging to a boiling point,” Muhammad wrote in a letter to Solitary Watch. “What will an animal do when you keep him caged up for so long?” 

Passed by the state legislature last June, the 2021 PROTECT Act would have reduced the isolation experienced by Muhammad and other people in Connecticut prisons and jails by placing strict limits on solitary confinement. In addition to ensuring that people held in the general population would receive six-and-a-half hours of out-of-cell time each day, the PROTECT Act would have limited placement in solitary to seventy-two hours in a fourteen-day period. It also would have banned physical restraints in non-emergency situations and created an ombudsman’s office to oversee the state’s Department of Correction (DOC). 

But two weeks after he told reporters he planned to sign the bill, Governor Ned Lamont vetoed the PROTECT Act and issued an executive order that created some restrictions on solitary and required that the DOC report on “steps taken” to decrease its use of restraints. As has been the case in other states, the order was far weaker than the legislation it purported to replace, with dangerous loopholes and no mention of independent oversight. Advocates say that correctional staff have been violating the intent of the executive order’s out-of-cell time requirements—and that at some facilities, people are even spending more time in their cells than before the order went into effect. 

“The executive order did not make things better—it actually made things worse for the people on the inside,” said Barbara Fair, the lead organizer for Stop Solitary CT, in a forum on a local radio station last November. 

The executive order mandates four hours of out-of-cell time per day for people in the general population and limits isolated confinement to fifteen consecutive days—much longer than the three days allowed by the PROTECT Act, but still within the guidelines of the United Nations’ Mandela Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. However, it allows correctional officers to suspend its out-of-cell time requirements in “extraordinary circumstances,” which it defines broadly as “a serious incident resulting in a lockdown” of all or part of a facility. 

According to individuals held at Cheshire Correctional Institution, officers there have used this exception to keep people locked in their cells for days at a time, without the opportunity to even shower or use the phone. James*, who is currently incarcerated at Cheshire, told Solitary Watch that the facility was locked down for twenty-four hours a day “at least one day out of the week and sometimes the entire weekend” in November, and for each of the three days leading up to both Christmas and New Year’s Day.

“You come out Friday first shift, then Friday second shift, you don’t come out. You don’t come out Saturday, you don’t come out Sunday, and then you come out Monday morning,” said Michael Braham, who was released from Cheshire last year.

In his letter to Solitary Watch, James said that officers were attributing the lockdowns to staff shortages caused by COVID-19 and to the necessity of minimizing COVID-19 infection in the incarcerated population. But he also suggested that some of the staff shortages may have been the result of coordinated efforts by prison staff. “Officers with unused sick days… will coordinate to use those sick days—even though they are not sick—to create a staff shortage,” he wrote. 

“As soon as [the executive order] went into effect, staff put up bulletins showing how the language allowed its adjustment,” wrote another individual held at Cheshire. A third man wrote that when officers exhaust their sick leave days, lieutenants “tell them to take funeral [leave] days” instead. “Another way to get over [the executive order] and keep prisoners lock[ed] down.”

“We continue to adhere to the Governor’s executive order, which mandates out of cell time for the incarcerated population,” said Ashley McCarthy, the DOC’s director of external affairs, in an email to Solitary Watch. “Infrequently, emergency situations may impact out of cell time, to ensure the safety and security of every individual within our facilities. However, operations are resumed as soon as we are able to do so safely.” 

McCarthy added, “During the latest Omicron surge, we had to reduce activities to manage staff shortages. Specifically, in December 2021 and January 2022, the Cheshire Correctional Institution suspended activities 17% of the time to adjust for staff home recovering from COVID-19.”  

For Braham and other advocates, the lockdowns at Cheshire provide a clear example of the weaknesses of Lamont’s executive order. So does the staff’s misuse of restraints, which continues to be a concern for advocates despite the revised use of force policies implemented last November in response to the executive order. One man held at Cheshire told Solitary Watch that a person was recently held down and shackled even after he exhibited signs of distress. “[He told] correctional officers that he was having some problems with his breathing and was still put on the ground by five to six staff,” he wrote. 

More than anything else, Braham said, these ongoing problems show why independent oversight of Connecticut’s prison system is direly needed. “If [the DOC] wanted to address the issue or discipline anybody they could, but they didn’t,” he told Solitary Watch. “We need independent oversight just to get them to play by their own rules.”

• • •

The Connecticut DOC in recent years has firmly resisted challenges to its authority, including efforts to curtail the use of solitary confinement, which is wielded as a tool of punishment and control by prison staff. Governor Lamont’s unexpected veto of the PROTECT Act was driven by opposition from DOC officials and unions representing prison employees, who celebrated the bill’s demise as an important victory.  

In addition to stating that the PROTECT Act would have imposed “unreasonable and dangerous limits” on the use of physical restraints as well as isolation, Lamont singled out the creation of ombudsman position as a reason for his veto, saying it presented “security and litigation risks.” 

But Connecticut’s prison system hasn’t always been exempt from oversight. From 1973 to 2010, Connecticut had an ombudsman’s office that worked independently of the DOC to investigate complaints from incarcerated people, serving as a valuable source of information for advocates and legislators alike. 

Legislators enshrined the ombudsman’s office into law in 2001 but repealed the statute in 2010, eliminating the office in a budget revision that same year, ostensibly to save money. The repeal made Connecticut one of thirty-three states without any form of statutory prison oversight.

“What we had was a person who understood the system, its temperament, who had a depth and breadth of knowledge about the system,” former State Representative William Dyson (D-New Haven) told the CT Mirror in August 2021. “[This] had not been something we had ever anticipated, that you’d have a system without an ombudsman.”

Braham, who spent the first decade of his incarceration at Cheshire when Connecticut still had an ombudsman, echoed Dyson’s belief in the value of its oversight. Both Fair and Braham acknowledged that the ombudsman system wasn’t perfect—the office wouldn’t always investigate incarcerated people’s complaints, and in Fair’s view, it compromised its independence by working too closely with the DOC. But even though the ombudsman failed to eliminate all abuse, Braham said that staff behavior worsened after the office was dismantled. Its monitoring was “something that kept the guards in check, even if partially,” he said.

Nowadays, incarcerated people say, the complaints they might have addressed to the ombudsman must be brought to wardens and DOC administrators—who don’t always respond to them and sometimes deny them outright. According to one letter Braham shared with Solitary Watch, people at Cheshire have raised concerns to administrators about officers vaping, watching movies on cellphones (which are prohibited inside facilities), and disregarding mask mandates, “all… to no avail.” Grant*, who is also incarcerated at Cheshire, wrote in another letter, “There is no accountability in here. Officers break the law all day in here and dare and laugh at you if you try to write them up.” 

In his letter to Solitary Watch, Muhammad said that a previous warden at Cheshire told him that he was lying when he informed her about the lockdowns. “Like I don’t know when I’m locked in my cell,” he wrote.  

• • •

During Connecticut’s 2022 legislative session, Stop Solitary CT is making a renewed push to get the PROTECT Act signed into law. The new version of the PROTECT Act reflects changes that some see as concessions—most notably, it would extend the maximum length of time a person can be placed in solitary from three to fifteen days, and reduce the minimum out-of-cell time from six-and-a-half hours a day to five. 

With these changes, the new PROTECT Act resembles New York’s Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which became law in 2021 and remains the strongest anti-solitary legislation in the nation. (One difference is that the New York legislation sets the threshold for minimum out-of-cell time at seven hours a day instead of five.) In 2019, passage of the HALT Solitary Act had been thwarted by the state’s then-governor, Andrew Cuomo, who also offered up as an alternative a weaker executive order that for the most part was never implemented.

In addition to carrying the full weight of law, passage of the revised PROTECT Act in Connecticut would restore the position of the ombudsman and eliminate many of the loopholes in the executive order. To complement the oversight provided by the ombudsman, the bill would create an Advisory Commission for Correctional Oversight comprised of legislators, corrections and mental health experts, formerly incarcerated people, and other community members—a provision that Fair told Solitary Watch was “the first thing to go” in last year’s negotiations with the DOC. She explained that the advisory commission would make the ombudsman’s oversight more effective because it would guarantee “more independent eyes” on the system. 

Under the new version of the bill, the ombudsman would have unrestricted access to facilities and be able to conduct confidential interviews with incarcerated people. According to Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in prison oversight, provisions like these are essential because oversight “is only as good as it’s designed to be.” But Deitch noted that strong oversight measures often get watered down as they make their way through state legislatures. “As to how robust [the legislation] will be, that’s always an issue,” she said.

Stop Solitary CT advocates say they aren’t planning to give up robust oversight this time around. “We kind of compromised on it last time, but then we realized—especially with the executive order, which the guards are undermining every day—that it’s wasteful to even put a bill together without oversight,” Fair said. “And community input absolutely has to be a part of that oversight.” 

For Braham, Fair, and other advocates, their work is grounded in the knowledge that people inside—including their neighbors and loved ones—are suffering in an unjust system. Fair has been especially haunted by the recent deaths of individuals in DOC custody—including the suicide of twenty-three-year-old James Harris at Cheshire and the sudden death of nineteen-year-old Jamari Taylor at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution—and the trauma her own son experienced in solitary confinement two decades ago.

“I have to always rise above my own individual pain and stay focused on the pain of the larger community because we have a whole generation of kids being destroyed right now as we speak,” Fair said on a recent Stop Solitary CT webinar. “We can’t just sit by and let it happen.”

On the other side of the prison wall, Grant emphasized the importance of oversight given the repressive conditions he and others at Cheshire are forced to confront every day. “When the structure is based on oppression it will not change from within… that’s why the PROTECT Act was so needed and that’s why they fought so hard against it,” he wrote in his letter to Solitary Watch. “Outside oversight [is] the only thing that can break this structure and cycle of mistreatment.” 

Some names have been changed to protect the identities of incarcerated individuals. 

Full disclosure: The author has participated in the Stop Solitary CT campaign.

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