Northern Correctional Institution in Somers. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org
A desk and a steel slab that would serve as a frame under a thin mattress at Northern Correctional Institution. The lawsuit alleges those incarcerated at the Somers prison spend up to 24 hours a day in their cells, confined to this space. The image is a still photo corrections officers took of an empty cell for a documentary about the prison, according to lawyers involved in the lawsuit.

Northern Correctional Institution’s use of solitary confinement and in-cell shackling amounts to discrimination against prisoners with mental illnesses, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday that seeks to end those practices.

The federal lawsuit — filed by Disability Rights Connecticut against the state Department of Correction, Acting Commissioner Angel Quiros and Northern Warden Roger Bowles — claims the state discriminates against prisoners with mental illnesses by failing to modify DOC procedures so inmates with mental health conditions can access programs, services and opportunities that other incarcerated people have.

The lawsuit seeks a court order prohibiting people with mental illnesses from being admitted to Northern and a barring of the DOC’s use of solitary confinement and in-cell shackling of people with mental illnesses who are held at the Somers supermax.

And it highlights the experiences of three inmates who have spent years in Northern under conditions that the plantiffs’ attorneys describe as “horrific.”

One of the inmates named in the lawsuit is Kyle Lamar Paschal-Barros, a 26-year-old suffering from a number of mental health conditions including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Sometimes, when the isolation proves overwhelming or when Paschal-Barros encounters situations over which he has little control, he expresses his distress by covering the four-inch wide window in his cell at Northern, the lawsuit states.

Prison officials have responded by placing Barros in shackled restraints on more than 10 occasions, one of which was after a suicide attempt Department of Correction staff claimed was “nonlethal.”

Each time he was shackled, Barros was stripped of his clothes except for a safety gown, locked and bound in a cell he described as a “cold cement doghouse.” He had to place his food onto wax paper on the floor and eat like an animal. During the confinement, he would sometimes experience flashbacks, a traumatic memory playing in his head while staff played continuous bell sounds over the intercom in the cell where he lay chained, his legs and wrists bound with a tether chain and fastened to another chain around his waist.

“There has been a long standing practice by DOC to impose really horrific conditions on prisoners who go to Northern,” said Deborah Dorffman, executive director of Disability Rights Connecticut (DRCT), the plaintiff in the case. “And those horrific practices include the routine, often indefinite subjecting of these individuals to solitary confinement, sometimes for days on end, and also shackling them in cells and restricting their movement, causing them physical and mental anguish and harm and humiliation.”

DRCT is represented by the ACLU of Connecticut, Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Law Clinic, and Morrison & Foerster LLP.

“Northern is notoriously cruel, punitive, unhealthy for everybody. But this suit is a disability rights case,” said Elana Bildner, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Connecticut. “So, people with mental illness are going to Northern, they’re being placed in this prolonged isolation. They’re being placed in this in-cell shackling. No one should have to endure that. But the constituency of DRCT is particularly harmed, arguably, by these practices.”

In his confirmation hearing last week, Quiros pledged to reform the DOC’s “restrictive status program, to reduce unnecessary restrictions, while providing more rehabilitative programming in a matter that continues to prioritize the safety and security of our staff and the incarcerated population” once the pandemic is over.

Northern was opened in 1995, when the state’s prison population was much greater and officials were having a hard time managing behavioral infractions occurring throughout the prison system. Advocates have called for its closure for years. Its declining population and symbolic status as a relic to a bygone tough-on-crime era make it one of the leading candidates for closure as Quiros decides which correctional facilities to shutter as the incarcerated population statewide has hit historic lows during the pandemic.

In a previous interview, Quiros, who served as warden at Northern between 2009 and 2011, said that prison had “served its purpose. With the criminal justice reform that’s going on, the agency will have to take a look at what additional changes we need to make, as far as the programs that are housed at Northern, and then we’re still keeping staff safety, and offender safety, in mind.”

The lawsuit makes note of Northern’s disorienting and isolating architecture. In an interview for a documentary about Northern, the prison’s architect John Kessler said the layout — the rows of barbed wire outside, the gray interior that gives the feeling of descent — was designed at the request of state officials

“There is nothing soft. It’s hard, and they wanted that,” he said.

Incarcerated people’s only access to fresh air and sunlight is in a “recreation cage,” the lawsuit claims, a space surrounded by an estimated 14-foot concrete wall and topped by a steel cage.

The lawsuit alleges the DOC regularly incarcerates people with mental illnesses at Northern, confining them to their concrete cells for up to 24 hours per day, in a “world of near total social and sensory deprivation.” The conditions often lead to self harm. People incarcerated there bang their heads against the wall, cover their cells in excrement or stab themselves. Some try to kill themselves.

The DOC often responds by performing cell extractions — removing the prisoner from their cell — and then placing inmates into in-cell shackling. Inmates are shackled, sometimes for days at a time, and placed in cold concrete “strip cells,” left alone but still shackled. The floors and walls are often smeared with urine and feces. It is not unusual for people confined there to develop skin rashes and infections.

The shackled are served food in Styrofoam cups without utensils.

“Many prisoners are unable to even lift a cup to their mouth because of the shortness of the tether chain; in these instances, the only way for them to consume the contents of the cup is to dump it out on the bed or floor and eat like a dog,” the lawsuit alleges.

The suit draws a distinction between the already isolating experience of being incarcerated at Northern. Those held at the Somers prison are often confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours per day, the lawsuit states. But those subjected to disciplinary actions are put in in-cell restraints for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours, the lawsuit claims.

If Northern is a prison for, in the words of one former DOC commissioner, “the worst of the worst,” then in-cell shackling is “the prison within the prison within the prison,” said Yale Law’s Hope Metcalf, who is also working on the case.

“Because it’s a system that’s designed to only have sticks and not carrots, what’s the stick that you can do once you put somebody in a concrete box?” Metcalf asked. “Well, you can tie them down. And that’s what the department’s doing, instead of actually addressing the root causes of why somebody might be having difficulties in prison to begin with.”

How to get to Northern

The lawsuit outlines a few of the ways an incarcerated person can wind up at Northern. One is administrative segregation — or solitary confinement — which, according to the agency’s administrative directive, is for people whose behavior threatens a correctional facility’s security or carries a risk to the safety of staff or other inmates. Phase I occurs at Northern and lasts at least 120 days. 

The DOC has said administrative segregation has clearly defined, finite timeframes, and that those held under that status have access to group programming, recreation and interactions with clinicians and counselors.

Another path to Northern is “Security Risk Group,” reserved for people the DOC deems to be affiliated with a gang. Like administrative segregation, Phase I is at Northern and lasts at least 120 days.

Special Needs Management is yet another status the DOC has to manage people who have “demonstrated behavioral qualities” either through the serious nature of their crime or the “reasonable belief” they pose a threat to prison staff, themselves, their incarcerated peers or the public. Those given this classification typically have “failed” the other two statuses. Special Needs individuals are typically sent to Northern. They usually spend at least six months there.

“The Administrative Segregation, Security Risk Group, and Special Needs Management prisoner stay at Northern is often far more than the minimum required,” the lawsuit alleges. “Prisoners are commonly held back for disciplinary infractions or if Northern staff decide that they have not completed the required programming.”

The result is that inmates with mental illnesses find themselves caught in a hellish cycle: they’re placed on a special status, then penalized for having mental health needs, which then keeps them held on that restrictive form of isolation because they are unable to maintain stable behavior due to their exacerbated mental health conditions.

“The result is that prisoners with mental illness can languish at Northern for months, years, or even indefinitely,” the lawsuit states.

In Barros’ case, the languishing has affected his case. The lawsuit contends that the lack of rehabilitative programming at Northern affects his eligibility for parole, as the Board of Pardons and Parole notified him that so long as he is on Administrative Segregation status, he will not get a parole hearing.

Barros has recurring nightmares about Northern and its physical layout, the lawsuit states. He has attempted suicide at least twice. State records show he is still incarcerated there.

Shackled for self-harm

The lawsuit uses the experiences of several incarcerated people like Barros to illustrate its claims. Another person named is Kezlyn Mèndez, a 34-year old incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. Prison officials transferred him to Garner Correctional Institution, which specializes in treating people with complex mental conditions, after he tried to take his life in December 2005. He was transferred to Northern in July 2006.

The isolation at Northern harmed his mental health, lawyers claim. Desperate for interaction with another person, he’d put his hand through the trap of his cell door, violating DOC policy. He alternated between desiring human connection and fearing and mistrusting others. He hallucinated, hearing disembodied voices. He had conversations with people who weren’t there.

Mèndez was transferred back to Garner due to his declining mental health in 2012 and returned to Northern in 2013. Altogether, he’s been cycled in and out of the supermax on six separate circumstances. He’s spent five years of his life there.

Officials placed Mèndez in in-cell shackling on three occasions, the lawsuit states. He was chained in the cold cement cell for between 24 and 72 hours, unable to physically wipe himself after using the bathroom.

Also named in the lawsuit is Tyrone Spence, a 29-year old currently incarcerated in Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution who spent more than three years at Northern between 2011 and 2019. In May 2018, he asked to be seen by Northern mental health staff. They refused to see Spence until the following day. He then cut his wrists and ingested pills and battery acid. In response, DOC staff gave him a disciplinary ticket “on the grounds that he had disrupted the health and safety of staff and other prisoners at Northern,” according to the lawsuit.

Spence told attorneys he’d been subjected to “black box” restraints more than 10 times, where officials fasten the tether and belly chains together, preventing prisoners from having a range of motion with their hands.

“You can’t sit down without hurting your hands or your wrists. When you sit down it pushes the chain into your wrist,” Spence said in the motion filed Thursday. “The only way you can be comfortable is if you stand up.”

The lawsuit contends that the DOC subjected Spence to in-cell shackling because of his tendency toward self-harm, which the agency considered attention-seeking behavior, unworthy of medical intervention.

“In fact, Mr. Spence’s instances of self-harm were a direct outgrowth of his mental illnesses and his worsening condition due to Northern’s isolating environment,” his lawyers argue.

Spence and Mèndez  have since been transferred out of Northern. They live in fear of being sent back, the lawsuit states. They are haunted by the isolation there, the ways they were punished for asking for help.

But they still agreed to have their names published in the lawsuit, as did Barros, Metcalf said.

“They felt very strongly, all three of them, that they wanted to speak up because they do not want anyone else to have to go through what they’ve been through.”

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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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