Connecticut — It’s time to get on the right side of history

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This month, Connecticut legislators will decide which side of history they will join.

A pending bill currently in front of the Connecticut General Assembly would ban the use of solitary confinement against juveniles and people with severe mental illness or disabilities. Under H.B. 7302, Connecticut’s Department of Corrections also would have to report on its use of solitary confinement throughout the system. Given the well-known harms that come from locking a person up for 23 hours a day, these are good and important changes.

Equally striking, though, is what the bill does not do: help anyone who doesn’t fall into those narrow categories of juveniles and people with severe mental illness or disabilities. An earlier bill – supported by a broad coalition – would have extended protections from solitary much more broadly. But that bill was killed when corrections unions flexed their political muscle.

A chilling documentary from 2012 reminds us just how far the system needs to go, and just how much is at stake – not just for people incarcerated, but for communities across the country. “The Worst of the Worst: Portrait of a Supermax Prison,” portrays Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s supermax facility. Supermax facilities are uniquely barbaric in a system that already routinely dehumanizes and abuses people – everyone housed there is kept in solitary confinement, every day, for 23 hours each day.

In the film, we meet Darnell, a young man with a warm smile and history of mental illness who spent several years at Northern. After coming home, he said, “I had to learn how to be a person again. To this day I don’t feel comfortable around crowds. I still have a problem walking, pronouncing my words. I gotta become a person again ‘cause I was an animal for three-and-a-half years.”

What would it take to make Darnell see himself as subhuman – as an “animal?”

Ira Alston has an answer. Ira has been at Northern off and on since he was 17 years old. Now 34, he educated himself from his 7- by-12 foot cell, becoming an eloquent writer and accomplished litigator. In written testimony to the state legislature, Ira spoke for the dozens of men he has known over the years at Northern who entered with “a conscience, aspirations, and goals, talent and dignity and pride.” He explained how “after years of being isolated, bullied, abused, degraded, they have been robbed of those qualities we call human.”

Connecticut has seen a spate of criminal justice reforms in the past few years, including its “Second Chance Society,” an initiative designed to both reduce the number of people being incarcerated and remove the barriers making reentry difficult for people after their release. In the five years since the release of the film about Northern, a series of reforms has also been enacted limiting the use of solitary confinement, resulting in a nearly 90 percent reduction in the number of people subjected to it. Not surprisingly, violent incidents of all kinds – assaults, self-harm, suicides – also fell.

But the progress is fragile. Unlike many other states, Connecticut currently has no statutory restrictions on solitary confinement. This is outright dangerous because, like elsewhere in the country, Connecticut prisons operate in the shadows. Regular rulemaking processes don’t apply, and apart from an occasional lawsuit, outsiders rarely ask what goes on behind a prison’s walls. A new administration could simply rewrite the rules.

Connecticut can’t afford that risk. We must protect the progress that has been made by legislating it.

As someone who leads an organization that invests in the leadership of people most harmed by mass incarceration, I am profoundly struck by the courage of Darnell, Ira, and the countless other men and women who carry the wounds of a system designed to deny their basic humanity.

In addition to the unspeakable trauma that solitary confinement causes, it also makes prisons more violent and communities less safe. Returning home after incarceration is daunting enough – finding stable housing, getting a job, reuniting with family. Add in the mental and emotional anguish often associated with the aftermath of solitary, and it becomes nearly impossible. As the country looks for a way out of the crisis of mass incarceration, ending the use of solitary confinement is one piece of the puzzle.

The Connecticut bill is just a start. More – much more – remains to be done. It’s time for Connecticut legislators to get on the right side of history. As the legislative session comes to a close, they must not go home without passing this critical bill.

Glenn E. Martin is the President and Founder of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030, as well as the founder of the #CLOSErikers campaign, which successfully advocated for the closure of Rikers Island in New York City.

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