A replica of a solitary confinement cell was displayed in the lobby of the Connecticut state Capitol Tuesday as part of an effort to reform the state’s prison system.
Legislators and visitors are encouraged to go inside the 10-by-12-foot cell, which aims to give people an idea of what solitary confinement might be like. It’s the second time in two years the cell has been at the Capitol as part of a campaign to change the practice.
James Tillman, who was wrongfully convicted of a crime and spent more than 18 years in the prison system, is on the steering committee of Stop Solitary Connecticut. He said just looking at the cell was like reliving his experience.
“This is not correction right here,” Tillman told a crowd of legislators and advocates. “This is torture. Placing a person in prolonged isolation, it messes with your mind. It also has a physical effect on you. It’s like giving people a life sentence. And after being out since 2006, it hasn’t gone away yet.”
Sen. Gary Winfield is pushing for a measure to eliminate the use of long-term isolated confinement. He said a bill is headed to the judiciary committee, which he co-chairs.
“We brought this to the Capitol because I think it’s important for legislators who allow for people to be in cells for extremely long periods of time to understand what it actually means to do so,” Winfield said.
A bill passed in 2017 prohibits minors from being placed in solitary confinement, but Winfield wants the new measure to go further. He’s also looking to close Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s super-maximum security prison in Somers, and cap the number of hours inmates should spend in their cells each day.
Barbara Fair, a member of Stop Solitary Connecticut, likened long-term isolation to the horror of slavery.
“We haven’t really changed much from what we were when Africans were first brought here,” she said. “No longer do they use the whip. They use mind control. They put you in places like this to break you. To break your spirit.”
The United Nations considers solitary, also called segregation, torture after 15 days. The effects of it have been linked to lifelong mental health problems, including anxiety, paranoia and depression.
The exhibit will remain at the Capitol until March 4.