Northern Correctional Institution, in Somers, will close by July 1. Kelan Lyons / CT Mirror
The population at Northern Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Somers, has dropped significantly since January 2019 following the closure of two housing units. Kelan Lyons / CT Mirror

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.”

Nils Melzer
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.”

In a statement, Karen Martucci, DOC spokesperson, said the department’s policy allows for meaningful interactions with others, through group programming, recreation, family social visits, phone calls and meetings with counselors and clinicians.
“Unlike some jurisdictions, the Connecticut Department of Correction’s policy governing Administrative Segregation (AS) which is often referred to as solitary confinement, does not follow indefinite time frames,” Martucci said.  “There is a high threshold for placement typically involving a significant act of violence jeopardizing the safety of others – offenders and staff. When warranted, and after a due process hearing, this placement is temporary with the goal to return to general population.”

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. “

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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  1. Martuccis statement is so misleading. My grandson pushed an officer, no injuries and they placed him at Northern. My grandson, Alex Flemming indicated they ignored his medical requests and he took the officers log book. The officer called a code, more officers arrived and he claims they cuffed him then Pepper Sprayed him and stomped him while in cuffs. Martucci claims high threshold for northern placement, then why is he at northern when he allegedly pushed the officer, who, according to the limited documents I have received, was not injured. I’m not going to say my grandson is an angels, obviously he’s doing time speaks for itself, however They will not release the New Haven CC EAST DORM video for 1/14/2020 between the hours of 145 am -215 am. That video will show how they arbitrarily send inmates to Northern for petty issues! Back when I was employed at DOC, (1980-2001) only the most serious and incorrigible inmates went to Northern. I guess things have changed. So much have they changed, his initial disciplinary report and the report they used for placement at Northern have different versions of the incident.

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