This story was updated at 3:53 p.m. with a statement from the Department of Correction.
The Connecticut Department of Corrections’s use of prolonged solitary confinement could inflict psychological torture on inmates, a United Nations human rights expert said Friday.
The UN critique speaks broadly about the use of solitary confinement across the U.S. but specifically mentions the Connecticut’s system.
“The DOC appears to routinely resort to repressive measures, such as prolonged or indefinite isolation, excessive use of in-cell restraints and needlessly intrusive strip searches,” said Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture. “There seems to be a state-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, which may well amount to torture.”
Melzer was responding to a May 2019 letter from the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School alleging that the DOC “systematically engages in the psychological and physical torture of persons incarcerated at Northern Correctional Institution,” the most secure prison in the state.
“There seems to be a state-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, which may well amount to torture.”
U.N. special rapporteur on torture
“These practices trigger and exacerbate psychological suffering, in particular in inmates who may have experienced previous trauma or have mental health conditions or psychosocial disabilities,” Melzer said. “The severe and often irreparable psychological and physical consequences of solitary confinement and social exclusion are well documented and can range from progressively severe forms of anxiety, stress and depression to cognitive impairment and suicidal tendencies.”
The Lowenstein Clinic’s letter makes special note of the use of “in-cell restraints,” where people have been shackled by their wrists and feet for days at a time, if guards determine that individuals have disrupted the prison’s normal operations, that they pose an imminent threat to themselves or others or threaten the facility’s security.
“We’ve heard people have to eat their food from the floor, like a dog,” said Faith Barksdale, a third-year student at Yale Law School and member of the Lowenstein Clinic. “The shackles are so tight that they often cut people and they bleed.”
The agency continuously reviews its policies, including restrictive status, to make enhancements, Martucci said.
Barksdale said the U.N.’s public condemnation of solitary confinement in Connecticut sends a message to incarcerated people across the state.
“People who are incarcerated often feel that no one cares, that no one sees them, that no one listens,” Barksdale said. “But to be seen and heard on the international stage, I am so glad that we have shined a light, and that they are being recognized for their courage.”
State lawmakers will likely consider a bill this session that would sharply curtail the use of solitary confinement in Connecticut prisons. Stop Solitary CT, the group championing the proposal, hopes the yet-to-be-written bill will close Northern Correctional Institution, create an oversight entity that could investigate and advise the DOC and stop the extreme isolation of those incarcerated in the state’s 15 prisons.
Leighton Johnson, a volunteer with the Stop Solitary CT’s Steering Committee and the group’s education outreach coordinator, said he hoped the U.N.’s statement helps build awareness within the state and across the world.
“I know from my own experience that when you’re inside, you feel dead. You’re the living dead,” said Johnson, who himself spent about several years incarcerated at Northern between 2008 and 2012. “You feel like there’s no one that cares about the injustice that you’re going through while you’re inside. “