Hartford Correctional Center. Attempts to end the cash bail system in Connecticut, which some say is overly burdensome on the poor, have not been successful. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Hartford Correctional Center

A new prison policy requires that officials assess the well-being of people who are part of a “vulnerable population” — including children, the elderly and the sick — after they’re put into a form of solitary confinement.

“This change essentially adds another step, another review process,” said Karen Martucci, the agency’s director of external affairs. “Part of that discussion may be, ‘Are there alternatives? Is this is this going to be harmful to this individual?'”

But advocates remain frustrated that the Department of Correction is overseeing its own internal policies over how to treat the most marginalized people in its custody.

“It’s very difficult to be optimistic about how DOC handles vulnerable populations, especially when they’re putting them in solitary confinement,” said Claudine Fox, the ACLU of Connecticut’s public policy and advocacy director. “This new directive entrusts the DOC to regulate itself regarding the health and well-being of the most vulnerable people it imprisons.”

The policy revision, approved by Commissioner Angel Quiros on Sept. 23, is part of the agency’s response to an executive order issued by Gov. Ned Lamont in June, an attempt to reduce the prison system’s use of isolated confinement and ensure the incarcerated spend less time locked in their cells.

Lamont issued the executive order when he vetoed a bill known as the PROTECT Act that would have set statutory limits on the use of solitary confinement in Connecticut prisons. The governor’s mandate states that as of Oct. 1, anyone in isolated confinement will be allowed out of their cell for two hours a day — except in “extraordinary circumstances.” By Dec. 1, the order states, “no person shall be held in prolonged solitary confinement.”

Advocates remain frustrated by the governor’s veto of the more expansive bill passed by legislators, despite the order’s attempt to increase out-of-cell time for any of the roughly 9,400 people in state prisons and jails held in isolated confinement.

“Time and time again, the DOC has proven that it can’t be its own watchdog, and that’s why it’s so unfortunate that Gov. Lamont blocked the PROTECT Act, which would have created external oversight of the DOC,” said Fox.

“Isolated confinement” refers to a broad array of ways, and reasons, the DOC subjects the incarcerated to solitary confinement. It can refer to in-cell restraints, a shorter-term tool DOC officials have said is used to handle emergency situations and keep prisoners and corrections staff safe; administrative segregation, a program incarcerated people are put in if their behavior poses a threat to the safety of staff or other prisoners; or security risk group, people the DOC has determined to be affiliated with a gang and pose a threat to the safety of staff, the incarcerated or the correctional facility.

A narrower slice under the umbrella of what is colloquially known as “solitary confinement,” restrictive housing is a way for prison officials to closely monitor, manage and separate an incarcerated person from their peers after they are involved in a “serious incident,” said Martucci. “It’s really a process of removal from the area, a cool-down period.”

Prisoners are typically put in restrictive housing for five to seven days to manage their behavior, for their own protection or to hold them as they await the results of an internal disciplinary hearing. Martucci said it is both a tool to curb dangerous behavior and a way give the incarcerated a space to cool down if they were recently in a fight.

“We have to have some form of accountability to keep order. We have to keep people safe. That’s kind of where the executive order puts us: a measured approach to accountability,” Martucci said. “Without accountability, we will have chaos.”

Lamont’s mandate required the DOC to limit the use of isolated confinement of members of vulnerable populations, which include those under age 18 or older than 65; people with serious mental health conditions; individuals with developmental disabilities; women who are pregnant, in the postpartum period or who have recently lost an unborn child; prisoners with “a serious medical condition that cannot be effectively treated in isolated confinement;” and individuals with a significant problems with their hearing or vision.

By those metrics, about 780 people — 8.3% of those in the state’s prisons and jails — are members of a vulnerable population, according to the DOC.

Under the new policy, after a person from that population is placed in restrictive housing,  the warden must assess them on the next business day, along with supervising mental health and medical staff, to determine if their placement is appropriate. If they find that the incarcerated person cannot be treated for their condition in a restrictive housing unit, the warden may place them on a restrictive status within the medical unit, instead of in a separate segregated space.

“You can serve sanctions but stay in the medical environment, versus going into RHU,” said Martucci.

Or, they could release them from restrictive housing if it’s determined continued placement there would be detrimental, “unless the inmate presents a serious threat to the population, staff, or the safety and security of the facility.”

The wording is ambiguous and worrisome to Barbara Fair, the “mother of the movement” to end solitary confinement in Connecticut and a member of Stop Solitary CT.

“That always leaves the door open for them to do pretty much what they want and say, ‘Well, they’re a serious threat,'” Fair said. “The agency always finds a way to maintain the status quo.”

Another gap in the executive order, according to Fair, involves who is considered to be a member of the vulnerable population because of their mental health condition. The DOC gives each member of the incarcerated population a score of 1 to 5, to reflect their mental health needs. Higher scores indicate more severe mental disorders that require more intensive treatment and care. The governor’s mandate says those who have a mental health score of 4 or 5 are considered a part of the vulnerable population.

As of May 2020, 96% of those incarcerated had a mental health score of 3 or below. Whites were more likely to have scores of 3 or higher; Black incarcerated people were more likely to have lower scores.

“There’s probably a whole lot of Black and Hispanic kids that probably have a score of 4 or 5, but according to DOC because they see us differently, they don’t see it as a mental health problem, so they give them a lower score,” said Fair.

The implementation of the executive order will be challenging for the agency, Martucci said, both because of logistical issues with the correctional facilities and because of a culture shift for employees who have worked in the prison system for decades. But the new policy is a benefit, not a burden, to the department, she said, one that could lead to a less restrictive form of confinement for a vulnerable individual.

Martucci said the department wasn’t aware of staff pushback to the changes. She said the bill the governor vetoed was “going to be extremely difficult” to implement, so the executive order “we look at as the more measured, and safer, approach.”

Anything dealing with the prison system is a racial justice issue, Fox said, considering the racial disparities within the incarcerated population.

As of Oct. 1, 43% of those behind bars were Black, almost 28% were Hispanic and 28% were white. A report recently published by The Sentencing Project found that Connecticut had the fourth-highest disparity between Black and white imprisonment rates in its prison system of all U.S. states.

“Lamont’s decision to let the DOC keep regulating itself is a decision to let DOC keep hurting Black and Latinx people, without accountability to anyone but itself,” Fox said, questioning the rationale that members of the vulnerable population will be placed into restrictive housing before they are assessed on the next business day.

“Solitary confinement is a traumatic experience, and if they haven’t been assessed for the conditions that DOC claims to care about, how are they not already exacerbating those conditions by putting them in solitary confinement?” Fox asked. “Things get worse before anybody has a chance to even get there.”

Martucci said the next two DOC policies to align with the executive order will be published Nov. 1. The topics will be reducing the department’s use of in-cell restraints and expanding the incarcerated population’s access to contact visits from families and loved ones.

“Although challenging, the commissioner has been looking to enhance out-of-cell-time, he’s looking to enhance programming, meaningful activities for the population,” said Martucci. “The commissioner has been trying to educate our employees on reform — he supports it.”

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.