In his celebrated memoir Just Mercy, lawyer Bryan Stevenson writes of the death penalty: “[The question] is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit” but instead, “do we deserve to kill?” Stevenson proposes that until America has a fair, equitable justice system, we can’t even entertain the possibility of letting it end a life.
Connecticut must look the same way at its use of solitary confinement. We ought to stop worrying about which individuals and groups are appropriate to send to solitary, and start taking a serious look at the practice itself.
Solitary confinement, while often written off as an unfortunate yet necessary carceral tactic, is horrific. Evidence shows that people come out of solitary hypersensitive to sensory stimuli and with greater susceptibility to heart damage and depression. Moreover, solitary confinement irreversibly damages a person’s ability to connect with others; having been deprived of human interaction for so long, formerly incarcerated individuals often find it difficult to comfortably coexist with others, even loved ones.
In an article for the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, James Byrd —a man subjected to three years of solitary confinement—summed up the effects of solitary bluntly: “I no longer simply live in solitary confinement, solitary confinement forever lives within me.”
To make matters worse, use of solitary confinement does not fall equitably on the prison population. In Connecticut, 85% of the population held in solitary confinement in 2019 was Black or Latinx, whereas these identities only make up 29% of the state. Generally, disabled people, people of color, immigrants, and transgender people are at heightened risk for being put into torturous solitary conditions.
Some might argue that solitary confinement is necessary in order to keep dangerous individuals from harming themselves or others behind bars. Yet this rationale ignores the fact that solitary confinement is a serious, serious harm, in and of itself. According to the UN’s Mandela Rules, solitary confinement is torture. It causes and worsens suffering, both psychological and physical in nature. What’s more, it contributes to a tragic loss of life: studies have shown that any time spent in solitary confinement increases risk of early death after release, whether due to suicide, homicide, or drug abuse. No amount of operational usefulness can justify this kind of suffering. Rather than reluctantly accept solitary, we need to scrutinize how it is being used and find ways to replace it humanely.
Last year, a wide-ranging coalition of organizations and organizers campaigned tirelessly for the PROTECT Act, a bill which would have stopped the indiscriminate use of solitary confinement, helped sustain crucial social bonds for incarcerated people, and ensured independent oversight of the Connecticut Department of Corrections (DOC). In early June 2021, both houses of the Connecticut legislature passed the PROTECT Act (also known as SB 1059). However, on June 30, Gov. Ned Lamont vetoed the bill.
Rather than sign the PROTECT Act, Lamont penned an executive order meant to reduce use of solitary. The executive order stipulated that solitary confinement should only be used in “exceptional cases and… as a last resort,” vaguely calling on the DOC to phase out its use of solitary. In recent months, the DOC has published several changes to their policies around solitary confinement. Now, anyone sent to solitary confinement who belongs to a vulnerable population will be assessed to determine whether they will be able to handle the experience. If they are determined to be unfit, they will be removed from the confinement (that they are already in!).
The idea that anyone, vulnerable or no, is able to “handle” torture, is absurd. But more than that, in failing to provide for external oversight of the DOC, the executive order has no teeth. In letting the DOC continue to monitor itself, Lamont has done nothing to hold it accountable. He seems to assume that the DOC has the capacity to judge the well-being of incarcerated people: that the DOC has an awareness of what the people in its institutions need at all.
And make no mistake, this assumption is unjustified. Recently, Stop Solitary CT’s lead organizer Barbara Fair wrote an op-ed describing how according to first hand accounts, conditions in Connecticut prisons “have gone from bad to deplorable to outright inhumane.” Just a few weeks ago, a 62-year-old in Connecticut lost his life in prison from COVID during a mere four month long sentence. Whether due to a lack of ability or desire, the DOC has shown it will not treat incarcerated people humanely if left to its own devices.
In order to meaningfully abolish solitary confinement in Connecticut prisons, independent oversight is a must. The DOC is structurally unfit to decide for itself who deserves what kind of treatment. How could anyone expect correctional workers under duress to consistently make the most moral, humane choice? Instead, the state must establish a third-party commission that can hold the DOC accountable as we work to make our state a more just place. This is exactly what the PROTECT Act would have provided for, had Lamont signed it into law.
Reminiscent of Stevenson’s quote, Governor Lamont’s executive order misunderstands what must be done: rather than ask which incarcerated people are fit to be put in solitary, we ought to ask whether the DOC has the capacity to be making these decisions at all. Right now, Lamont is trying to appease all sides. But the health and future of incarcerated people are at stake, and as a state, we must choose humanity over convenience. To establish external oversight is to take a permanent step toward a more just society; to allow the DOC to police itself, according to guidelines rife with loopholes, is to change nothing.
Jason Altshuler is a student at Yale University.