Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, talks with criminal justice advocates after a rally for the PROTECT Act on June 2. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas
Sen. Gary Winfield in solitary — in the lobby of the Capitol in 2017. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Sen. Gary Winfield in solitary — in the lobby of the Capitol in 2017. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

In years past, the advocacy group Stop Solitary CT brought a replica of a cell used for solitary confinement to the Capitol. Legislators were invited to step inside the concrete and metal box, to experience in part what it’s like to be locked up in isolated confinement. Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, had spent several hours in it.

“That experience, even though I knew I could open the door, even though I knew I had complete control, became disorienting,” Winfield said. “This issue that has been in front of the General Assembly is about the way in which we treat people who have done some things that have landed them in our prisons, but who remain human beings, and about whether or not we treat them as such.”

The Senate voted 26-10 on Friday to pass a bill that would limit the Department of Correction’s use of solitary confinement and expand an oversight office charged with investigating complaints filed by any of the roughly 8,950 people in prisons and jails in Connecticut.

“How we treat our prisoners defines us,” said Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor. “Today we have an opportunity to be better than we have been.”

During the bill’s public hearing, Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros said he is making changes to the department’s use of restrictive housing status to increase prisoners’ out-of-cell time.

“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,” Quiros said.

Winfield said on the Senate floor Friday that he had heard similar pledges in the past.

“And year after year after year after year, I’m waiting,” Winfield said. “And while I’m waiting, the people who are in the system are waiting. But they’re not just waiting —they’re experiencing what it is to be in solitary confinement as it is currently set up.”

Winfield proposed a compromise of sorts: the rule requiring the incarcerated to have six-and-a-half hours of time out of their cell daily wouldn’t go into effect until July 2022, giving the DOC an entire legislative session to come back and iron out provisions of the bill they disagreed with. And the DOC would have until 2023 before they needed to give incarcerated people on restrictive housing status — a form of confinement prisoners can be held on because of behavioral issues — six-and-a-half hours of out-of-cell time each day.

“If we can come to an agreement, then that’s how we will change the law,” Winfield said. “And if we can’t, this law will go into effect.”

The vote comes after the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis released a report predicting the bill would cost the state around $20 million in each of the next two years, a price tag that Winfield disputed before legislators voted it out of the Appropriations Committee.

Winfield introduced an amendment that removed some of the costs from the bill. His proposal removed the requirement that the DOC provide free phone calls to the incarcerated — a duplicative measure, considering the free prison phone call bill that won final passage through the House Thursday night — and extended the period during which a physician and therapist were required to evaluate a person before they’re placed in isolated confinement, potentially reducing the cost to the DOC.

He also clarified that the original fiscal note contained a mistake, estimating that the state would have to hire 12 ombudspersons. The bill mandates the hiring of only a single ombudsperson.

A former correction officer, Sen. Paul Cicarella, R-North Haven, dispelled what he characterized as myths surrounding solitary confinement in Connecticut prisons. Not every correction officer has the power to put someone in segregation, and they can’t do it just because someone looked at them the wrong way. It’s not as though prisoners are placed in a metal gate in the middle of a courtyard, left to bake under the sun without food for days.

“It’s not, I’m sure, what Nelson Mandela had to endure in a different country,” Cicarella said. “It’s not what you see on TV.”

Just because someone goes to jail doesn’t mean they stop “misbehaving,” Cicarella warned. There are still acts of violence in our correctional facilities, he said.

“If we do not give our officers an ability to hold people accountable for actions that take place in that facility, we are handcuffing our officers, and that we know is not a good thing,” Cicarella said. “It’s not going to make it a safe place.”

The ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, noted that the incarcerated are placed in statuses according to the risk they pose to themselves or others. Why hamstring the DOC with a “one-size-fits-all” approach, one that takes away a potentially useful disciplinary tool?

Winfield said there are exceptions in the bill where a prisoner could be subjected to isolated confinement for longer than the bill otherwise allows, in cases of a facility lockdown or if another person faces imminent physical harm if that person were not in segregation.

“We understand that there are reasons why you might need to use segregation,” said Winfield.

However, Winfield noted, the overwhelming majority of people who are in prison eventually are sent home. Very few are serving life sentences.

“They need to come back into communities as healthy as possible, because if we’re concerned about what happens to the people that the conversation is often about — the victims —we don’t want to put people who’ve been broken by our system in place,” said Winfield.

Another legislator who spent time working in the DOC, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a 21-year veteran of the agency, said when she first started at the department, about 5% of the incarcerated population was considered chronically mentally ill. Then, in the 1990s, Gov. John G. Rowland closed two psychiatric hospitals, and the state failed to fund community-based mental health services when the facilities closed, making prisons and jails the state’s de facto institutions for people with mental health needs.

As a result, Osten said, 28% of the males in state correctional facilities are considered chronically mentally ill, as are 80% of females in York Correctional Institution, statistics that are relevant as lawmakers debate whether to reduce the DOC’s isolated confinement of those with mental health conditions.

“And I continue today to say that if we really want to deal with the number of people that are incarcerated, the only way to deal with that is to deal with those people who our correctional officers are expected to deal with day-in and day-out — without the training to deal with someone that has chronic mental illness — and we expect them to handle that situation much akin to what we have done with our police officers, where they are supposed to deal with every kind of person, and understand all their needs, without really even knowing what their needs may happen to be,” Osten said. “I will bring up this issue until someone starts to listen and someone starts to understand that if we don’t deal with trauma, if we don’t deal with chronic mental illness, we have only ourselves to blame for the situations that people find themselves in, we only have ourselves to blame for what happens within the walls of a correctional facility and on the streets.”

The final tally on the vote on the solitary confinement bill in the Senate.

An update to the Red Flag Law

Shortly after the Senate passed the solitary confinement bill, it also gave final passage to a measure that would modernize Connecticut’s first-in-the-nation “red flag law.”

The current law created a process for law enforcement officials to get a court order seizing firearms from individuals deemed an imminent risk to themselves or others. The warrants expire after a year, requiring authorities to return weapons.

The updated version would allow the weapons to be held in perpetuity if deemed necessary, permit police to seize weapons other than firearms and bar the subject of a risk warrant from purchasing new firearms while the warrant is in effect.

The bill passed the Senate 23-12. Kissel said the state already had stringent gun laws, and he worried the measure could infringe on people’s constitutional rights.

“I just think that lawful gun owners have done more than their fair share over the past several years,” he said. “And I don’t really see any need at this point in time for any further gun laws here in the state of Connecticut.”

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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.