The Department of Correction has revised its policies on in-cell restraints, an attempt to reduce the length of time incarcerated people are shackled alone in their cells for behavior deemed dangerous by prison officials.
The new policy shortens review periods, requiring corrections health services staff to conduct a mental health assessment of shackled people at least once in an eight-hour period. Previously, they had to observe them at least twice over 24 hours.
Shift commanders must perform an assessment of the incarcerated once per shift, instead of every 24 hours. They also must keep their supervisors apprised of the prisoner’s behavior every four hours, instead of every 24.
The change is the latest policy revision after Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order in June, a mandate to reduce the prison system’s use of isolated confinement and ensure the incarcerated spend less time locked in their cells. Lamont crafted 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.
In-cell restraints, the subject of a lawsuit alleging the practice discriminates against and harms prisoners with mental illnesses, are a tool prison officials say they use to handle emergency situations, manage behavior and keep the incarcerated and corrections staff safe.
Advocates argue that, in practice, shackling someone by their wrists and ankles and locking them alone in a room exacerbates a person’s mental health conditions and is an extreme way to manage behavior subjectively deemed dangerous.
The policy also attempts to reduce the time prisoners spend shackled. Previously, if an incarcerated person remained non-complaint 72 hours after being put in in-cell confinement, prison staff needed to ask higher-ups to authorize keeping them in the restraints, keeping those shackled for up to three days at a time before they had to seek permission to continue the confinement.
Now, staff have to seek that authorization if the incarcerated person remains non-compliant beyond eight hours from their initial placement.
In another attempt to reduce the time spent in in-cell restraints, custody supervisors are to try to get prisoners to conform their behavior twice per shift.
DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros approved the policy revision on Nov. 2. On the same day, he also approved revisions to the department’s visitation policies, another requirement of the governor’s executive order. The changes are tailored to increase the incarcerated population’s opportunity for contact visits, to allow them more time to interact with their loved ones during their incarceration.
Incarcerated people who are allowed contact visits can briefly hug and kiss their loved ones at the beginning and end of a visit.
Those visiting with an infant can now bring one clear bottle filled with formula or milk, a small cloth and a pacifier. Visitors can now leave the visiting room to change a diaper and come back for the remainder of their visit.
Protective orders must have been expired for at least two years before a victim can be reviewed for addition to an incarcerated person’s visitation list. The victim must be the one to request being added to the approved list. The policy also spells out how those identified as victims in police reports are approved or denied as prospective visitors.
Prisoners with security levels up to 4 can now have up to 15 approved visitors on their list. Those who are level four, deemed “high security,” must not have a class A disciplinary report for two years, issued for certain offenses like assaulting a DOC employee or incarcerated peer, creating a disturbance, impeding order, holding a hostage.
Contact privileges can be revoked if a prisoner or visitor is found to have committed a serious violation or has repeatedly violated the rules.
In a statement, a DOC spokesperson said that the closure of Northern Correctional Institution, coupled with the significant policy changes that resulted from Governor Lamont’s Executive Order, speak to the state’s commitment to improve the correctional system in a responsible manner.
“Reducing the use of in-cell restraints, while also increase connections between incarcerated individuals and their families, are important steps in improving the chances for successful reintegration,” said Quiros.
Despite its attempts to decrease the time the incarcerated spend in their cells, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the executive order wasn’t good enough. Those mandates can be changed, either by the current governor if they determine the order isn’t politically beneficial, or by their successor.
“An executive order doesn’t have the permanency of a statute,” Winfield said. “Even if I were to say, ‘Oh this is a great executive order,’ it’s still problematic.”
Winfield said he plans on running another bill to reduce the use of solitary confinement in the legislative session that starts in February, but it will be more similar to the more expansive PROTECT Act than Lamont’s executive order. He’s not sure how much, or if, it will be changed to make it through both legislative chambers, but said the conversation will start with the broader bill from last session that the governor vetoed.
“I don’t think we’re starting off with this executive order with the goal of getting it into statute,” he said.