ACLU praises CT prison reforms on solitary confinement

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Sen. Gary Winfield in solitary – in the lobby of the Capitol.

The door of an isolation cell rolled shut Tuesday behind Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven. He stretched out on a hard bunk under a fluorescent light. But his stay would be brief. The cell that held him was a replica assembled in the ornate lobby of the State Capitol, not one of the state’s prisons.

The national movement to limit the use of solitary confinement has come to Connecticut, where civil libertarians say they are on friendlier terrain than in many other states: Here they seek legislation that codifies in law reforms already adopted by the Department of Correction.

Instead of battling correction officials, opponents of long-term solitary confinement praise them for working in recent years to narrow the use of administrative segregation, as disciplinary confinement is known here, while reducing incidents of assault, suicide and use of force.

David McGuire, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Connecticut, said Commissioner Scott Semple and his predecessor, James Dzurenda, each tightened criteria for the use, duration and nature of administrative segregation, where hundreds of inmates once routinely were confined on any given day.

McGuire said lawyers for the ACLU and Yale Law School, who have represented inmates in cases involving long stays in administrative segregation, “have been really struck by the progressive changes over the last four years.”

Keishar Tucker of New Haven said he ended up in administrative segregation for months in 1999 as a 17-year-old awaiting trial on a threatening charge — the result of disciplinary infractions he committed after his arrest. He called the isolation “horrific.”

McGuire said the same disciplinary record — none of Tucker’s infractions as an inmate involved violence toward staff or inmates —  would not land an inmate in administrative segregation today.

“We first started grappling with this issue three or four administrations ago. It was very difficult to get any information about how solitary was being used. FOI was really a useless endeavor,” he said. “Right now, the DOC is very much using a data-driven model.”

Karen Martucci, a spokeswoman for the Department of Correction, said administrative segregation remains an important tool in maintaining order, but the department has changed and constantly reviews the standards for its use.

“Out of nearly 15,000 overall inmates, today we have 38 in administrative segregation,” Martucci said. “The numbers speak for themselves. It is a rare occurrence and takes a significant offense to get you to that status. It’s an option we need to have.”

Winfield, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the proposed legislation would not impose further limits on the use of administrative segregation, but it would standardize current regulations and ensure the continued collection of data about its use.

Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, co-chair of the committee, said he had heard from correction officers nervous about legislative limits on administrative segregation, but the bill would be drafted to reflect the department’s current policies.

Edwin Cay, a member of the executive board of Local 391, a union that represents correction officers in northern Connecticut, was among the visitors who stopped by the replica cell and read a solitary confinement fact sheet on display.

He said the department already meets evolving industry standards, which used to allow for confinement 23 of every 24 hours. It is now 22 of 24 hours.

Cay said it is now used only for inmates who are violent towards themselves or others.

“We have to have a place to put them,” he said.

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