A cell at the state's now-shuttered supermax prison, Northern Correctional Institution.
A desk and a steel slat that would serve as a frame under a thin mattress at Northern Correctional Institution. The image is a still photo corrections officers took of an empty cell for a documentary about the prison, according to lawyers involved in a lawsuit.

News of the closing of Northern CI left many within the social justice community elated. Weeks ago, then-acting Commissioner Angel Quiros publicly stated at least two prisons would be closing. Many of us felt it made sense that Northern would be on the short list, especially with recent news surrounding it. It has faced numerous lawsuits since its opening in 1995, one affirmed on the very day the commissioner was confirmed.

In February, 2020 the controversial facility was cited by United Nations International Committee against torture. The announcement that it would be closing came with cheers and tears.

Last year when Rollin Cook took over Connecticut Department of Corrections, he spoke about transforming the department into one that respected the human dignity of all people. I became hopeful for the first time in decades the department would undergo a transformation from strictly punitive policies of the past toward restorative ones.

Despite the lawsuit claiming abuse at Northern while Quiros was warden I wanted to believe he had evolved, especially since he had been unanimously confirmed to lead the department. I pray that he has the wisdom, compassion, and courage to lead in a way that doesn’t leave incarcerated people spiritually broken.

Northern had one purpose, to break the will of those sent there. It should never had been acceptable in civil society and yet it was. The inhumanity and brutality was normalized and sanctioned. It is a dungeon-like facility costing the state over $17 million annually to house 55 people, 51 African American and Latinx. With a staff of 175 one might question the staff ratio when the 55 men are held in tiny, locked spaces 23 hours a day, being allowed out for an hour heavily shackled.

The outcome for many leaving there is transfer to Garner CI for the seriously mentally ill. There they will be heavily medicated to cope with anxiety, depression, post- traumatic stress disorder, paranoia, suicidal ideation, and hypervigilance. Mental illness is an expectant outcome after being in isolation for months. Psychologists have said our brains begin to work differently after a few days in isolation and after 15 days one’s brain may be irrevocably damaged. So many leaving prisons after enduring prolonged isolation will be crippled by the pain endured, and many scarred for life. Many will require years, maybe decades of psychiatric care.

To hear Commissioner Quiros state his decision to close Northern was “attributed to the drop in incarcerated people and as an obligation to taxpayers” and savings would go toward closing the state budget deficit, I wondered if he had any problem with the treatment of those held there. It was disheartening and I wondered if would lead to acknowledging and respecting the human dignity of incarcerated people?

The ultimate tragedy of Northern CI is not the depraved cruelty toward humans by bad characters, but the silence and willingness of good people to allow it to occur.

Barbara Fair lives in West Haven.

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