Efforts to end or reduce solitary confinement in prisons and jails around the U.S. have had some success recently. Solitary reform in New Jersey in 2019 states: “No person can be isolated for more than 20 days in a row, or for more than 30 days during any 60-day period.” In mid-March, the New York legislature passed the HALT Act, which limits the number of consecutive days an inmate can spend in solitary confinement to 15 days.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, on an average day, 4.4 percent of prison inmates were held in some form of solitary confinement. Out of 1,430,800 people in prisons, not counting jails, that’s 63,000 individuals. Ten percent of them spent more than 30 days in solitary. The United Nations defines torture as isolation from other humans for more than 15 days, with serious mental health impacts for some after just 7 days. The federal government says such isolation is more common among young and/or LGBT prisoners and those with mental health conditions and that all of those groups are more likely to suffer increased harm.
In Connecticut, advocates are now working to pass the Protect Act, which would require that inmates be in their cells no more than 16 hours a day, except for emergency situations. The measure would end the painful, dehumanizing practice of in-cell restraints and provides for regular communication with an inmate’s loved ones. Two other important provisions of the bill are the creation of oversight within the prison system and offering mental health services to correction officers. At a rally on March 18 before a public hearing on the bill, several people spoke who had either been incarcerated, worked inside the prisons, or had loved ones who experienced solitary confinement. We hear first from Sean Sellars, a member of the ACLU Smart Justice Campaign, who was a pretrial detainee at Connecticut’s Supermax Northern prison.
SEAN SELLARS: Good morning, thank you for having me. My name is Sean Sellars, I’m a member of the ACLU Smart Justice Campaign, I’m a former prisoner of the Connecticut Department of Correction, and a victim of the torture chambers at Northern Correctional Institute Supermax.
Foremost, I want to stand here today in solidarity with Stop Solitary CT, with SB 1059, an Act Restricting the Use of Isolated Confinement in Correctional Facilities. I was interred in Northern CI in 2011 as a pre-trial detainee; I had yet to be convicted of anything. Furthermore, the crime I was accused of was a Class D, low-level, nonviolent offense. The excuse used by the DOC administration to bury me alive for a year was a Code of Penal Discipline, again, nonviolent. Why a pre-trial detainee would be subject to the Code of Penal Discipline deserves analysis. What is relevant for this occasion is why, with only the forementioned data at hand, this was satisfactory to meet the criteria for placement in a supermax prison? This shows the depths the DOC have sunk to maintain the relevance of supermax philosophy and the lengths of those that proselytize a punitive response to society’s ills and maintain a cynical and dystopian vision of society at all costs.
In my youth, I had read the book Papillon, with its grim descriptions of the penal colonies in colonial French Guyana. Imagine my horror to find out that in the shadows of a bucolic New England in the 21st century, in a supposedly progressive first world state, an institution so barbaric and medieval to carefully create conditions engineered specifically to inject men and women with a spiritual sickness so insidious as to eat human beings alive from the inside out, that individuals in this society have invested so much sweat and treasure in cages and chains, have exhausted so much intellectual resource for a philosophy whose core moral absolute is the destruction of his fellow man. In response to a letter regarding solitary confinement in Northern, the U.N. special rapporteur condemned the use of solitary confinement practices in Connecticut.
The closure of Northern is an important symbolic event and a good first step, but let us not pat ourselves on the back just yet. Because this edifice, symbolic of a deep-bodied philosophy of punishment and torture and basic ill will to mankind, still stands, requires reckoning. Because while one brick remains standing on top of another, this house of horrors is a monument and memorial to the worst mankind has to offer – just as backwards and degenerate as any Confederate monument, for surely they emanate from the same abnormal thinking that produced slavery, the Black Codes, and Jim Crow. And more than the structure itself, it is the disease and pathological thinking that has created this edifice that must change, because as the building is shuttered, the sick thinking and lock-down mindset remains, with this draconian ideology of punishment above all else.
Since the ’90s, the Connecticut DOC has implemented a closed movement protocol across the various security facilities. Now more than ever, more of Connecticut’s facilities operate on a supermax approach because it streamlines and expedites the ease for which to run the facilities, rather than what is the best procedure to ensure that these prisoners will be healthy and ready to be cooperating members of society. It is what is easier for the staff to get through their day, remaining as shiftless as possible.
The totality of Connecticut prisons are on the 20-hour lockdown, controlled movement protocol. This ensures that mental health conditions will deteriorate and exacerbate, and the probability that we’ll continue to return home to stagger through our streets with broken spirits and shattered psyches. Let’s make sure we don’t let that happen by passing common sense legislation like SB 1059.
That was Sean Sellars, formerly incarcerated at the Supermax prison in Connecticut. Kebra Smith was a nurse at Northern with four children to support, but she left her secure job with good benefits when she witnessed the treatment of prisoners there.
KEBRA SMITH: In training they teach you, don’t treat these people like people, treat them like criminals because that’s who they are. The individuals who were incarcerated were locked in their cages – because that’s what they are – for 23 hours a day. As I would medicate these people and I would say, How are you today? The guards would say, Don’t interact with them! And that’s just basic! I can’t not do basic things. They’re human!