Barbara Fair stands outside Zoi's on Grove Street in New Haven, Conn. Fair is a longtime criminal justice activist in Connecticut. Madeline Papcun / CT Mirror

This is the first of an occasional series profiling Connecticut people who frequently share their insights, passions and opinions with fellow readers in CT Viewpoints commentaries.

Barbara Fair has been a social justice activist in Connecticut for more than 50 years, working primarily in criminal justice. Sitting in Zoi’s on Grove Street in New Haven, wearing a bright yellow T-shirt and earrings reading “RESPECT,” she reflects. 

“My work is really focused on people in New Haven, but I can’t live there,” Fair said, glancing out the window. “The despair is hard to see. It’s disheartening.” 

Fair, 74, was born and raised in New Haven, but now lives in West Haven. She moved there to find a better school system for her 11 children.

Originally, Fair was a social worker, having earned her masters degree in clinical social work from Southern Connecticut State University. She spent years counseling children and families, but left the profession a few years ago for health reasons.

“I am one of those people who absorb the pain of others,” Fair explained. Half-smiling, she added, “I wish I didn’t, but I do, and so I had to get away from that work.” 

However, Fair has been doing criminal justice work since she was a teenager. 

“I took some time off to be a mother and to be a student, but I never really got away from the work,” she said, smiling. “I’m a mother, grandmother and great grandmother first. Those are my most important roles.”

Much of her activism stems from personal experiences with the justice system. When she was 16, her older brother was incarcerated for a first-time offense. Fair said her family knew he was innocent.

“We knew it wasn’t him and thought we had nothing to worry about. We trusted the system, and it failed us,” she said, sighing. “They say it takes a lot to go to prison — but not in the Black community.” 

As time went on, Fair’s interactions with the prison system in Connecticut only increased in frequency.

“The work really took over my life in the ‘90s; some of my sons went to prison,” she added, resting her head on her hands. 

When her youngest son was sentenced to Northern Correctional Institution — a former “supermax” prison in Connecticut — at age 16, Fair said she “fought and fought” to get him out.

“I could tell from his letters that he was starting to slip mentally. We got him out in the late 90s or early 2000s, but he has never gotten beyond pain and trauma from that experience,” she said. 

Fair said this motivated her to focus her advocacy on getting Northern Correctional Institution “shut down.” As of June 11, 2021, the facility is closed

Still, Fair’s struggle for criminal justice reform continues. “What they did to my son, I know they’re doing to others,” she said.

Nowadays, as a part of this mission, Fair is a member of Stop Solitary CT — a group dedicated to ending the use of solitary confinement in jails, detention centers and prisons across Connecticut. She explained that for much of her life, her advocacy was volunteerism, but now she receives a stipend from the organization to help support her.

In addition to her work with Stop Solitary CT, writing opinion pieces for various outlets including CT Mirror Viewpoints is another vehicle of activism for Fair. 

“It’s another way to inform other people about what’s going on,” Fair explained. “Reporters write stories from their perspective, and I want to make sure people hear other perspectives.”

For her, writing is a way to reach more people. 

“Any opportunity that I have to inform the public, I’ll take it,” Fair said. 

In describing her writing process, Fair said it was pretty simple. 

“The more I look at a piece, the more I want to make changes, so I try to condense it to one page to make people want to read it,” she said. 

As for feedback on her pieces, Fair doesn’t interact with the comments section, if there is one.

“Years ago when I would write for the [New Haven] Register I would get a lot of negative feedback,” she began. “People used to say nasty things, like I’m a trouble maker or I want to let criminals go — all these outrageous things.”

Despite this, Fair continues writing. 

“I just stand my ground. If it were constructive criticism, I would take it, but usually it is derogatory,” she said.

Writing has been a passion of Fair’s since elementary school.

“If I ever find the time, I want to write a book,” she said excitedly. “I just can’t stop the work to devote the time to it yet.” 

Recently, Fair’s work has focused on stopping the use of solitary confinement, in-cell restraints and strip searching in Connecticut prisons. Still, she expressed frustration and disappointment in the lack of progress when working with the Connecticut General Assembly.

In May of 2022, Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law Public Act 22-18, known as the PROTECT Act, enacting limitations on the amount of time and circumstances under which an incarcerated person may be held in isolated confinement in state prisons and jails.

While Fair and Stop Solitary CT pushed heavily for the PROTECT Act, they hold frustrations with changes made to the original proposal. These included grievances with a last minute amendment to the independent advisory board the PROTECT Act established, and a lack of implementation of the law.

Fair says this is all too common working in advocacy in Connecticut.

“Language is always changed, every bill is always compromised,” she complains. “It’s always baby steps to justice. That’s all I’ve ever gotten in years of working in justice in Connecticut.” 

Because of this, Fair explained she has “graduated from reform work to dismantle work.” 

“With reform, I came to realize this system isn’t trying to change,” she said.

Fair began to tear up when discussing the struggles Black and brown communities face in America. 

“So many years in this country that we did not ask to come to, still treated like second and third class citizens,” she said. “Emotional stress that I have to deal with every single day is debilitating,” she added, covering her face with her hands.

Despite her frustrations, Fair pushes forward. 

“Walking away is what they want us to do,” she says, leaning back in her seat. “They want to wear us down, so I’m trying my best to not do that.”

Still, it is difficult to remain hopeful as an activist, she says. “Everything is set up to fail — they really don’t want to change, and everything maintains the system,” she said. “That’s why we’re all tired. They give us crumbs every year.” 

This frustration has put Fair at a crossroads. 

“This session has made me rethink,” she said. “I wonder, ‘Do I need to get away from this, too?’”