More must be done to humanize Connecticut criminal justice

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After months of tireless work to bring awareness to state legislators about the harm associated with solitary confinement, a bill was passed that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what must happen to humanize criminal justice in this state. When states as notorious for prisoner abuse as California and Texas are making changes in prisoner treatment, one must wonder why Connecticut is lagging behind.

Connecticut Sen. Gary Winfield and State Rep. Robyn Porter championed the original bill, which emerged from several conversations with the Commissioner of Corrections Scott Semple, Yale law students and prison activists in the community. The proposed legislation, HB7302, called for a significant reduction in the use of isolation and demanded closer monitoring of who was in solitary and how long and why they were there. It also called for an end to solitary for children under the age of 18, the mentally ill and physically challenged.

Survivors of solitary confinement and their family members staged a rally outside the capitol in support of the legislation, testified before the U.S. Commission on Human Rights and the Judiciary Committee, and held meetings at the New Haven Public Library. The library exhibited a replica of a solitary cell that was later on display on Yale’s campus and at the state capitol and featured a screening of The Worst of the Worst, a documentary about solitary confinement in Connecticut.

On June 6, just before the end of the legislative session, a bill was passed – but it was watered down so much that the compromised version made minimal changes compared to the original.

The mentally ill and physically challenged will continue to face isolation, and there will be limited annual data reporting and no change to the process of who gets placed in solitary as well as no limit to how long they can remain there. Experts in the field of mental health, the international community, as well as the Human Rights Commission have determined that solitary confinement is torture. It was further determined that as few as 15 days of isolation can cause irreparable harm to one’s psyche.

Year after year, hundreds return to depressed communities after suffering this abuse – their minds shattered and their spirits broken. Thousands are medicated to cope with the trauma of being caged for months, years, decades. Many return to our communities unable to function and pose a real threat to public safety.

Legislators whose constituents are rarely represented in that population turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the collateral consequences of isolating prisoners.

Our coalition has vowed to continue this fight for justice and humanity because we know we are judged as a society by how we treat our most vulnerable. Our criminal justice system is clear evidence of who we are.

 Barbara Fair is the founder of My Brother’s Keeper in New Haven.

 

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