Last June, the bipartisan PROTECT Act was on its way to becoming law before Gov. Ned Lamont vetoed it. If he had signed the bill, it would have limited solitary confinement in correctional facilities around the state.
Governor Lamont voiced his support for that goal in his veto announcement. He signed Executive Order No. 21-1 in tandem with his veto as a replacement. His announcement claimed that Order 21-1 was “stronger than both the United Nations’ Mandela Rules and progressive policies and laws instituted in other states.” This is unequivocally false. The executive order has failed to live up to its lofty goals, endangering the human dignity of incarcerated people across the state.
The language used throughout Executive Order 21-1 takes inspiration from the PROTECT Act. Its definitions of isolated and prolonged confinement take a page directly out of the Mandela Rules, the minimum standard of treatment for incarcerated persons.
It ordered the Department of Correction to limit the use of isolated confinement, increase social contact for incarcerated persons, and minimize the use of in-cell restraints. It expanded the definition of vulnerable persons to include elderly, pregnant, auditorily impaired, visually impaired, and developmentally disabled prisoners.
On paper, these directives seem like serious investments in the dignity of incarcerated people across the state. But without any methods of independent oversight, the governor’s efforts cannot match, much less surpass, the practices of other states. His potentially tough rematch against Bob Stefanowski demonstrates that Executive Order 21-1, which his successor can overturn, is far from a permanent solution.
Rule 45 of the Mandela Rules states that all solitary confinement must be “subject to independent review.” This principle is a widely accepted part of corrections across the West. According to a study from UT Austin, over 90% of countries in the European Union have serious oversight mechanisms in place “to monitor conditions and the treatment of people held in all detention facilities.”
In Europe, the United Kingdom has developed a “gold standard” for correctional oversight. It allows three independent offices to regularly visit prisons in England and Wales, investigate complaints from prisoners, and examine deaths within facilities. The Office of the Correction Ombuds in the 2021 PROTECT Act would have executed similar tasks. Empowered to investigate complaints from incarcerated persons, evaluate DOC facilities, and provide policy recommendations. Governor Lamont’s decision to outright reject this framework leaves Connecticut lagging while independent mechanisms continue to protect correctional facilities worldwide. That’s the Connecticut difference.
Allegedly stronger than the “progressive policies and laws instituted in other states,” the omission of independent oversight in Executive Order 21-1 also puts us behind multiple states. According to UT Austin, 15 states and Washington, D.C. already have independent means of “responding to complaints of incarcerated persons and/or for monitoring the conditions of confinement.” They include neighbors like New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Additionally, bills to create similar apparatuses “were recently under consideration in states like Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas.”
Concerning investigating complaints, Connecticut was ahead of its time. The state ran an Office of the Correctional Ombudsman for decades before eliminating it in 2010 due to budget cuts. Without a clear means to file complaints, incarcerated people in Macdougall, Cheshire, Osborn, York, and Garner have resorted to writing letters to Stop Solitary CT. For example, incarcerated people from Cheshire claim that the abuse of lockdown procedures keeps them in their cells 24 hours a day for one to three days each time without “showers or phone calls.”
Luckily, the CGA has given the governor a second chance. A modified version of the PROTECT Act was recently approved by both chambers. It now heads to the Governor’s desk, where he will once again decide to sign or veto it.
Governor Lamont understands that Connecticut has a responsibility to ensure the dignity and health of incarcerated persons and corrections staff. To make certain that isolated confinement is not abused in any correctional facility in Connecticut, he must sign SB 459 into law before this legislative session ends.
David Acquaah-Mensah is a Senior legislative fellow with the Yale College Democrats.