Joe Baltas started getting placed in solitary confinement shortly after getting admitted to prison at age 18. Some of the reasons were frivolous, he claimed, like not walking fast enough.
“Conn[ecticut Department of Correction] has done nothing but weaponize isolation confinement against its prisoners, to no affect but destroying people,” Baltas wrote to legislators of administrative segregation, a status the department uses on incarcerated people who pose a threat to themselves or others. “All AS isolation ends in people getting worse, hurting themselves or killing themselves.”
As the Judiciary Committee geared up Monday to hear from the public on a number of bills related to life inside state correctional facilities, they received written testimony from at least nine people currently in prison. All spoke up in support of the PROTECT Act.
The measure would set limits on cell confinement, create a single definition for “isolated confinement” to unify the many current statuses that advocates believe constitute solitary confinement, require the Department of Correction to publish data on the use of isolated confinement and create an office for a DOC watchdog who would investigate inmates’ complaints and make policy recommendations.
From his cell at Northern Correctional Institution, Carlton Wallace penned a letter to legislators calling solitary confinement at the Somers prison “a prison system within a prison system.” The isolation makes it hard for the incarcerated to transition to life in the general incarcerated population, he wrote.
The incarcerated people who wrote lawmakers were serving sentences ranging from four years to life in prison, for an array of crimes including manslaughter and assault on a police or fire officer. Some were unsentenced.
Several inmates noted the racial implications of isolated confinement. At Northern Correctional Institution, where advocates say many of the people held on such forms of confinement are incarcerated, 45 of 70 people incarcerated there as of March 1 were Black. Just 10 were white.
Almost 45% of the incarcerated population is Black. Whites make up 27% of those behind bars and about two-thirds of state residents overall.
“In Northern CI there has been many cases of [correction officer] brutality, deliberate indifference to mental health and medical needs, sexual abuse, and other forms of cruel and unusual punishment to so many Black prisoners we have no choice but to identify with the negroes we read about in slave narratives, novels and movies,” wrote Wallace, who is Black. “This is why most of us Black prisoners take not only pain but pleasure in undergoing abuse (I know it sounds crazy!). Because we fight back just like some of them, especially those Blacks who were more modern —Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton and so many others.”
Carlos Baez said he was locked in a cell for 30 days at Cheshire Correctional Institution. His request to be placed with a cell mate went unheeded.
“I witness other prisoners in in-cell restraints, and the sight was a hurtful thing to see,” Baez wrote. “It’s like they were animals.”
Anthony Randolph said he wouldn’t have survived his time at Northern Correctional Institution without the help of his lawyers. He said corrections staff called him racial slurs, assaulted him and violated his rights.
“Every day in that facility was a constant threat to human life,” he wrote.
Randolph wasn’t the only incarcerated person to write to the Committee about racism at Northern. Darnell Walker called Northern’s staff racist and alleged that non-white staff simply “follow suit in fear to confront their colleagues.”
Walker said he has been placed in in-cell restraints for up to 17 days, “to the point I didn’t even feel like a human.”
Others talked about being placed in isolation when they were in a mental health crisis. Victor Rodriguez said he was placed in in-cell restraints for 32 hours in October 2017.
“I was mentally and emotionally tore apart,” he wrote. “To this day I am scared and paranoid to speak to anyone about any type of problem that I’m going through because I feel like I’ll be placed in restraints again or even worse.”
Jason Goode told lawmakers about the effect solitary confinement has had on him. He said he has become “even more socially reclusive and bitter toward my fellow man.”
Goode said he has been incarcerated at Northern on administrative segregation status — a policy the DOC uses to correct dangerous behavior — since October 2016. He said the department’s policies penalize incarcerated people with mental disabilities, affect their ability to get paroled or be released from prison to community supervision and destroy family bonds crucial to their health and well-being.
Goode wasn’t the only person to bring up administrative segregation. Julian Bennett wrote that he is currently being held on the status. He said he’s been put in in-cell restraints about 50 times, left alone and shackled in freezing cold cells.
“While chained up like a slave overnight I’ve been forced to stay in cells that had feces, urine, dried up food particles and little insects all over,” he wrote.
Bennett recalled how corrections staff would come into his cell to perform a “restraint check.” He alleged they would beat him and spray him with mace, claiming he was resisting. He claims they got away with the abuse because there were no cameras and staff live by a “code of silence.”
The bill gives Bennett hope that others won’t have to endure the abuse he and others have suffered, he said, calling it “vital to the wellbeing of incarcerated persons and to the wellbeing of CT Department of Corrections and CT’s taxpayers.”
Joseph Stewart’s testimony, which he wrote from New Haven Correctional Center, mentioned the need for oversight of the DOC. Stewart said he slipped a disc in his back in 2015, while he was incarcerated at Osborn Correctional Institution. After a visit to the hospital, Stewart was put in a hospital bed at the prison. After two days, corrections officers asked him if he could leave.
“The COs told me that they didn’t care about my back pain and said if I didn’t get up that they was going to cuff me behind my back and drag me on my belly,” Stewart wrote. “I was very scared and had to walk sometimes falling and crawling to get to the next cell to avoid more injury, while in cuffs.”
Stewart warned that corrections staff can inflict serious harm when they “rough handle injured inmates.”
The long-term effects of isolated confinement were noted by several incarcerated people who submitted written testimony. Kyle Lamar Paschal-Barros mentioned the “old saying, ‘hurt people hurt people,’” and that, eventually, those placed in isolation will be released from prison.
“The reality is this,” Paschal-Barros wrote. “There are a lot of mentally ill inmates subjected to solitary. Most are expected to someday re-enter society.”
The DOC responds
The first individual to testify in person Monday morning was Angel Quiros, the DOC commissioner. He began by outlining the tasks he’s currently undertaking: overseeing the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine to staff and the incarcerated, planning for the closure of Northern Correctional Institution and two other prisons by the end of the biennium and overhauling training for corrections staff so they can support incarcerated people’s return to the community once they’re released.
Quiros said he is also making changes to the department’s use of restrictive housing status to increase inmates’ out-of-cell time.
“These are all major endeavors and changes I must deal with while maintaining safety and security for the public, my staff and the incarcerated population,” Quiros said. “Some of the proposals in Senate Bill 1059 are already being addressed by me and my staff, just maybe not to the extent or to the speed desired by the proponents.”
Asked whether there were some people under his custody who were so dangerous they needed to be isolated from the rest of the incarcerated population, Quiros said, “the simple answer is yes,” but he recognizes the importance of the DOC commissioner being at the table and of ongoing discussion on criminal justice reform. He is currently reviewing the department’s use of restrictive statuses, which he said have not been updated in almost eight years.
But, Quiros said, he doesn’t want the changes to lead to an uptick in violence in the corrections system. “I want to do it safely, and right,” he said.
A three-decade veteran of the department, Quiros said there used to be a Corrections Ombudsman office and that reestablishing one is “worthy of discussion.” But, he warned, “this bill is so prescriptive, expansive, and costly” that he doesn’t think he could a DOC commissioner could agree, or adhere, to it without significant negative consequences.
“Give me time to implement the changes through carefully considered policy,” Quiros said. “Allow me the opportunity to lead this agency through a shift in culture. Hold me accountable.”
Quiros said he could support an ombudsman overseeing the agency, but he took issue with the nine-member Correction Accountability Commission created in the bill that would name candidates to be the ombuds, review their performance and consult with them on systemic reforms to the DOC. Quiros worries the commission will be made up of civilians with no professional experience in the corrections system.
“That’s a little concerning to me for the simple reason that if you’re going to have a panel oversee the Department of Correction, I mean, there should be some experience and some knowledge of what it takes to run an agency, as a commissioner,” he said.
Quiros said the DOC has significantly reduced the use of administrative segregation over his tenure in the department but reiterated there is more work to be done.
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said he was hesitant to believe the provisions in the bill will be followed on their own without legislative action.
“I am a little wary about the notion that more time is the answer, because of what has been represented to me in the past by prior commissioners of correction, particularly on this issue,” Winfield said. “But if we do not move forward with this bill in a way that I’m hoping we do, I hope that what you represent to us turns out to be the case.”