Despite the recent passage of the Protect Act, a trauma-informed and anti-violence bill, the Department of Corrections has unfortunately still not enforced it, even though it would create a safer carceral environment for both staff and incarcerated people, especially survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
We don’t view incarcerated people as a population of survivors. Many people depend on racist stereotypes fueled by decades of public policy that incarcerated people are violent, dangerous, unhinged, and entirely deserving of the inhumane conditions that we call prison.
As someone who is dedicated to creating truly safer communities, free from all types of violence, it is critical to see incarcerated people as a deeply marginalized population in need of structural support for healing, structural support that the Protect Act promises.
Across the United States, one in three women and one in six men experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. This is already a horrifying number.
The statistics are so much more dire for incarcerated populations. In localized studies across the country, more than 80% of girls in juvenile justice systems are survivors of sexual violence; a shocking 90% of women in New York prisons are survivors of abuse. Nationally, 45% of system-involved girls and 24% of system-involved boys experience five or more adverse childhood experiences.
Prisons are not mental health centers; they are not meant to identify and treat the underlying trauma of the people they confine. In reality, these systems and their degrading security practices like invasive strip searches are so punitive and dangerous that they will likely retrigger and compound incarcerated peoples’ existing traumas.
By definition, carceral environments control every aspect of incarcerated peoples’ lives, from what they wear to when they eat to where they are at every moment. This is of course done under the guise of upholding security. But isn’t this what abusers do to control and isolate victims? For any survivor entering the criminal legal system, the system itself becomes their next abuser.
We need to start understanding system-involved people as high-risk survivors. Many of the DOC’s security measures do the opposite of protecting; they impart trauma onto an already traumatized population and create an increasingly dangerous carceral environment.
Solitary confinement is one of these practices that purportedly uphold security. Isolation, by whatever name, traumatizes people, especially survivors of sexual and domestic violence, and creates urgent and severe health concerns, like paranoia, delirium, cognitive difficulties, panic disorders and more. Prison Policy reports, “Even though people in solitary confinement comprise only 6% to 8% of the total prison population (by a conservative estimate), they account for approximately half of those who die by suicide.” Solitary confinement creates and compounds mental health issues, leading to a more unsafe carceral environment, for staff and incarcerated people alike.
This is not a problem we can hide away in prison since 95% of people who are incarcerated are released. They are our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones. This is a public health issue that impacts all of us.
This year, the Protect Act, SB 459, was up for vote again, this time with DOC Commissioner’s Angel Quiros’s support. With its passage, legislators took the first steps to show they care about making Connecticut a safer and healthier place to live.
If the Connecticut DOC follows through with the promises of the Protect Act, Connecticut will create an independent Ombuds and Corrections Advisory Committee that will include formerly incarcerated individuals and medical, mental health, and legal experts. This collaboration will guide the DOC in creating a more humane and trauma-informed carceral environment, which will alleviate corrections’ staffs’ burden and responsibilities.
The Advisory Committee will be able to integrate community service providers into the corrections’ system to meet the many complicated needs of incarcerated people, whether that’s education, victim services, parenting classes and more. This will help break down much of the isolation that happens with incarceration and could serve to greatly benefit incarcerated survivors since relationships with loved ones are an integral part of the healing process.
The Corrections Ombuds would also create a confidential feedback system. This can become one of the many avenues for incarcerated survivors to make known their concerns around safety, reporting, medical care, and victim services. Certainly, the Ombuds and Correction Advisory Committee will support CT DOC in being in better compliance with its federal Prison Rape Elimination Act mandates.
The Protect Act will require more transparency from the DOC including the publication of data on use of force, access to education, pro-social programming, internal grievance system and more. Right now, we know little about the lives of Connecticut’s incarcerated people. The Protect Act would open the doorway into collecting data around the prevalence of sexual and domestic violence survivorship among Connecticut’s incarcerated people prior to and during incarceration, barriers to reporting and accessing survivor services like the hotline and counseling, safety concerns of survivors who are incarcerated with their perpetrator, and more. This will help service providers and DOC better understand the health concerns of incarcerated people and actually uphold security.
Of course, the Protect Act limits the use of solitary confinement. This means that Connecticut would be less likely to compound the existing trauma (and therefore not cause urgent health concerns) of its incarcerated people by reducing the amount of time one can spend in isolation. This is also incredibly important for incarcerated survivors. My work with anti-sexual violence advocates in Connecticut has made it clear that many incarcerated survivors are placed in isolation because they report sexual violence within prison. In theory, this is supposed to protect the survivor. In effect, this discourages reporting, punishes people who are bold enough to come forward, and compounds trauma on top of their sexual victimization.
The limits on isolation will end this practice, no matter how well-intentioned. With the help of the Advisory Committee, CT DOC will be able to create trauma-informed ways to protect incarcerated survivors.
CT DOC needs to implement every aspect of the Protect Act and build deeper and more accountable relationships with communities across Connecticut to support incarcerated survivors. There is a lot of work to be done when it comes to the health and humanity of incarcerated individuals in Connecticut, whether it’s the use of strip searches, spread of illnesses like Monkeypox or Covid-19, or the need for survivor services.
If we wish to create a safer Connecticut, then it means supporting and protecting ALL survivors, including those who are incarcerated.
Nanee Sajeev of Trumbull is an Anti-Violence Advocate and member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.