Criminal justice reform advocates thought the state was on a better path after former Gov. Dan Malloy signed a 2017 law that banned solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners.
But a January report by the state Office of the Child Advocate found that young inmates in adult facilities were still being put in isolation.
Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said at a recent public hearing that confining anyone, especially a young person, to a small space for up to 23 hours a day, with limited human interaction for extended periods of time, is unacceptable.
“What it tells us is that our approach to responding to the needs of incarcerated youth has to dramatically change,” she said.
A new bill in the state legislature would address this oversight by taking the ban a step further—the law would eliminate the use of solitary confinement for all youth and adult inmates. The state Judiciary Committee advanced the legislation Tuesday to the General Assembly.
Advocates like Susan Kelley, director of advocacy and policy at the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the legislation can better protect people from the physical and psychological health impacts of being in prison.
“We know that people who are incarcerated who don’t have mental health conditions coming in that there’s a strong risk of increased anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma,” Kelley said, “and then for those with existing mental health conditions, it can worsen the condition.”
The bill comes at a time when the nation’s prison systems and human rights violations are under increased scrutiny. Things like solitary confinement, which can also be called restrictive housing or administrative segregation, are coming into question.
Solitary confinement has a history in U.S. prisons going back to the early 1800s, but researchers like Judith Resnik say mounting evidence and studies that highlight the immediate and long-term harms are part of a national shift away from using isolation for discipline and population control.
“The question is how to unravel practices that have built up over several decades, that have produced tens of thousands of people held 22 hours or more, for 15 days or more, and many people weeks, months, years and decades,” she said.
Resnik is the Arthur Liman professor at Yale University School of Law and a founding director of the university’s Liman Center for Public Interest Law. She and other researchers partnered with The Association of State Correctional Administrators starting in 2013 to collect data on the magnitude of restrictive housing in prison jurisdictions across the country.
The center’s latest report, released in October, estimated that there were about 61,000 people in isolation in the fall of 2017. People were isolated for 15 days and up to more than six years for things like fighting, gang affiliation, posing a security threat or simply not following rules.
But instead of solitary confinement being used as a solution to problems, Resnik said it’s now become a problem to be solved.
“The concern is that solitary confinement is actually the source of more violence and more disruption,” she said. “It’s extremely disabling for the people so detained. It’s very difficult for the people who have to keep people in solitary confinement. It’s a bad system for both sides of the law and bad for the community.”
But representatives from the Connecticut Department of Corrections argued that the practice is still needed sometimes to maintain the safety of staff and inmates, and to enforce rules.
Commissioner Rollin Cook submitted written testimony in a public hearing earlier this month. He said prisons have already taken measures to limit the use of administrative segregation, but it can still help in situations that “jeopardize the safety of the community, correctional staff or other offenders.”
The Liman Center report showed that Connecticut had 2.3 percent of its inmates in restrictive housing—lower than the national average. But as the report from the state Office of the Child Advocate showed, youth inmates were still being isolated, despite a state law prohibiting that.
And experts like Kelley said as brains are still developing in young people, they can be more at risk for developing long-term, permanent damage from related trauma.
It’s for these reasons that Christina Quaranta, deputy director for the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, supports the bill. She said banning the practice altogether can also reduce some inequalities that already exist within the prison system.
Both the state report as well as the Yale study showed that solitary confinement or restrictive housing disproportionately applied to younger inmates and people of color. Quaranta said that leads to a hurtful cycle.
“What does that mean for how we are treating them now and what’s going to happen to them later?” she said. “Are they going to recidivate? What barriers does that put up?”
There was a strong consensus Tuesday among Judiciary Committee members that failure to protect youth inmates from forms of isolation needed to be corrected. But some questioned if a ban for all inmates, including adults, was the way to go.
Resnik said structure and safety practices within prisons could still remain top priorities even if the state abolished solitary confinement. Leaders in correctional systems around the country are among those leading changes, she said.
“The idea that solitary makes us all safer in the long-run is not correct,” she said. “The point is, how can we develop permissible forms of punishment that respect the individual humanity of every person while keeping safe the people who are approximate to them—other prisoners and staff—and the communities to which many of them will return.”