Solitary confinement, a necessary tool?
Solitary confinement has many faces within Connecticut Department of Correction. Faces include administrative segregation, security risk-group, chronic discipline, administrative detention, transfer detention, punitive segregation, special needs, restrictive housing and Level 5 prisons where solitary is simply a regular course of housing.
Some 45% of those held in restrictive housing have a diagnosed mental illness according to a report from DOC in 2018. According to that same report, 77% of people held in restricted housing were African-American and Hispanic; 82% of those held in administrative segregation are African-American and Hispanic and 88% of those held in SRG (security risk group) status are in the same group.
Although African-Americans and Latinos make up less than 20% of Connecticut’s general population, they make up a huge percentage of prisoners held in restrictive housing. This tells us that not only is the practice of isolating prisoners sadistic, it is racist in practice as well.
In Northern Correctional Institution there are reportedly 78 prisoners with 139 officers supervising them. Prisoners are held in their cells 23 hours a day and when allowed out for a shower or recreation they are shackled, so the need for so many staff in proportion to prisoners is questionable. The 139 officers do not include medical or mental health staff. The 2019 budget for Northern alone was $17.5 million.
According to international law solitary confinement is defined as keeping people locked up 22 hours a day or more. In Connecticut, several facilities house people for 22 or more hours a day. Not all are like Northern where the harshest conditions exist. Several keep people caged on a regular, non- punitive practice including Manson Youth facility which is under federal investigation related to the harsh conditions under which our youth are held. Garner Correctional Institution is another facility that keeps serious mentally ill persons locked up 23 hours a day. Garner reportedly houses over 500 prisoners who suffer from chronic mental illness. Many are pre- trial detainees.
Northern is marketed as a necessary tool for housing the worst of the worst, the uncontrollable prisoners who have murdered other prisoners and assaulted staff. A closer look will reveal there is much more going on below the surface, closed to the public eye.
Northern breeds and exacerbates mental illness. It leaves people broken in spirit and mind. Prisoners experience hallucination, hear voices, experience suicidal and homicidal ideation, and over time lose their grip with reality. Many attempt suicide as a desperate attempt to escape the torment. Once released, many suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and end up homeless on the streets coping with their ordeal with alcohol, prescription drugs and street drugs. Many end up on psychiatric units on a regular basis.
Solitary confinement leaves lifetime emotional and psychological scars.
According to psychiatrists the brain begins to function in a different manner within days of isolation. After 15 days, many will experience irreversible brain damage. International law forbids the use of solitary confinement as a punishment.
When we are aware of these facts yet continue the practice we as a society must ask ourselves have we lost our humanity or is it that we do not recognize the humanity of those whom we oppress. There is absolutely no place for a place like Northern in a civil society. Several states have banned or significantly reduced the use of isolation as a tool for managing prisoners. Connecticut is behind in making those changes and as of recent press conference Corrections leadership reportedly has no plan to end solitary confinement nor shut down Northern.
Society is judged by how they treat their most vulnerable. What does that say about Connecticut if we turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the torture of our citizens, young and old?
Barbara Fair lives in West Haven.
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