The night lawmakers in the House voted 87-55 to give final passage to a bill that limits the use of solitary confinement in state prisons and jails, Barbara Fair called her son to tell her that they’d won their fight. He didn’t answer.
“I said, my God, please don’t let this Victory Day be the day that I lose my son, the day that he says, ‘I just can’t take any more,’” Fair said. “I texted him early the next morning, and he texted back. And so I was able to breathe. But it is a constant worry, like, how much more will he continue to hold on?”
Fair’s son spent about six months in solitary in the New Haven Correctional Center in the mid-2000s when he was a teenager, and he continues to bear the scars from the time he spent locked in a cell by himself, alone except for his own thoughts. Fifteen years later, she still texts him every morning and every night to make sure he’s OK.
Fair had been organizing against solitary confinement in other states for decades before her son was incarcerated in Connecticut, never imagining that the stakes would one day be personal.
“I want to feel good that I did something to make sure other mothers’ sons will not have to go through what my son went through,” Fair said. “And other mothers won’t have to go through and live with what I have to live with, 15 years after being tortured.”
Just after midnight Sunday morning, the House ended a five-hour debate by passing a bill that would limit the Connecticut 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.
Because the state Capitol is closed to the public due to COVID-19, advocates with Stop Solitary CT, the organization to which Fair belongs, have sat outside the building every day for the past month while the House and Senate were in session, passing out flyers and informational one-pagers. They were stationed outside so much that they started printing their flyers on different-colored paper, lest lawmakers or their aides think they had already been handed the information.
Fair was among the advocates, attorneys, legislators — and, improbably, an NBA coach and former player — who rallied outside the Capitol Monday to call on Gov. Ned Lamont to sign the bill now that it has been passed by the House and Senate. A spokesperson for the governor said Monday he is still reviewing the bill.
Family was a major theme of Monday’s demonstration. Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, talked about her own son, who himself spent time in prison. What he needed, Porter said, was rehabilitation. What he got was trauma.
“He ain’t been the same since he’s been home,” Porter said. “He went in one way and came out another.”
Others at the rally had lived experience. Leighton Johnson, another member of Stop Solitary CT, talked about how he read Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” while he was in solitary at Northern Correctional Institution. His uncle sent him a copy — one family member serving a 30-year sentence passing along a book to a nephew serving 10 years.
“He sent me the books so that I could get an understanding of how to move in this world even though the world sees you as someone who doesn’t matter,” Johnson said, recalling how he spent three days chained in a cell, having to ask the corrections officer on duty to flush the toilet.
“What we’re not saying is that victims of crimes should not be afforded some justice,” Johnson said, “but what we are saying is prison is the punishment. So if you go to prison, that’s your punishment.”
Also in attendance was Caron Butler, an NBA star and former UConn Husky who one week ago penned at op-ed in The Hartford Courant recounting the time he spent in solitary confinement as a teenager. On Monday, he urged Lamont to sign the bill.
Butler talked about how every male member of his family, up to him, exhibited the same “recycled behavior, recycled habits,” winding up behind bars and absorbing more trauma because of their incarceration. He said he didn’t feel like he’d “made it” until he got drafted into the NBA, earning symbolic recognition from being a basketball superstar and breaking his family’s “generational curse,” building significant wealth because of his career.
But his financial success hasn’t made his pain go away.
“I’m still broken from the experiences of the correctional facilities,” said Butler.
When Reginald Dwayne Betts first got locked up at a jail in Virginia, he was so young — 16 years old — that he was still pretending he was going to make it to the NBA. He would spend hours practicing dribbling an invisible basketball in the basement of the Virginia county jail where he was incarcerated. He would jump, trying to touch the ceiling that was just out of his reach, hoping that he’d hit his growth spurt soon.
He wound up doing his first 90 days in jail in solitary, the first of about 14 months he’d ultimately spend in isolated confinement over his eight-and-a-half-year sentence. His jailers in those first three months never gave him a mattress, pillow, or blanket.
“I am here today by the grace of some power I have no full ability to articulate. I know a lot of people who haven’t made it out of the hole,” said Betts, a member of Connecticut’s Criminal Justice Commission and an accomplished writer and poet who graduated from Yale Law School after he left prison.
When Betts was in solitary, he felt like he wasn’t seen. Not that he wasn’t seen by the corrections officers or the other men in prison, or that he was invisible like the basketball he’d pretend to dribble in his cell.
“I mean that I wasn’t seen by the public,” Betts told the crowd, which included his youngest child, three years younger than Betts was when he first got locked up. “I mean that I lived in a nation that accepted that it was OK to put men, women and children in the worst places that exist in this country. This bill means that y’all see folks, and this bill means that we have demanded that more happen.”