In early December, more than 100 activists met in New Haven, Connecticut to kick off their campaign to end solitary confinement in the state. The United Nations maintains that anyone held at least 22 hours per day in their cell for at least 15 days is the victim of torture. Connecticut advocates succeeded last year in ending solitary confinement for juveniles, but in 2020, they’ll press again for its complete elimination. One of their demands is to close Northern Correctional Institution in the rural northern part of the state, a supermax facility where solitary is the only option, even when it sometimes includes two persons in a cell.
Nationally, solitary confinement — or segregation, as it’s often called — is a major problem, but progress is being made. In 2015, a report from the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners were held in segregation across the country. The next year, the numbers dropped to 68,000 people held in isolation. In 2017, the estimate dropped again, to 61,000.
BARBARA FAIR: It was a packed room, I can tell you that, at the program room at the library. A lot of Yale students showed up, different people from the community; Sen. Winfield showed up to talk about legislation. We had people who were formerly incarcerated, people who have experienced solitary, family members who have experienced solitary. It was a great event and we educated the group about what solitary does and the impact it has and how much of it we have in our prisons right here in Connecticut. When we went to Washington, a few of us a couple of weeks ago met with other groups from around the country who are working on solitary and seen how Connecticut is behind a lot of states in making reforms. In Colorado, for instance, their commissioner actually went into a solitary unit and he said it took him one hour to realize he needed to do something about solitary. It was something as minute as that, and I proposed that maybe we need to ask our commissioner to sit in there for an hour and see if he thinks solitary is okay.
We talked about our number one goal is shutting down Northern, period. There is no use for Northern – it’s nothing but a torture chamber. We talked about the international community that has said what we are doing is torture and the U.S. is the only country not in compliance with minimal standards about how to treat people. So we have a lot to do in our own country but we have a lot to do in Connecticut, but our biggest barrier is that our state is so segregated that there are just a few legislators who actually represent people who are incarcerated and are going through this experience. So our biggest work is trying to get those other legislators from suburban and rural areas who are not impacted by this to care enough to shut this place down and to work on how we can get other prisons that are holding people 20 and 22 hours a day, how we can find a more humane manner in how we treat those people.
We have a call out there, a call to action, and we were kind of inspired last night so I hope it’s gonna end up doing what we seek to do.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Barbara Fair, what are the specific things you’re asking for, both at Northern and at other prisons around the state?
BARBARA FAIR: We have a lot of solitary, like I said, in Connecticut prisons. There are several prisons that hold people 20 to 22 hours a day, which is entirely too much to be talking about rehabilitating people. You’re just caging people for the majority of their day. So that’s not helpful at all, and those people are just coming back to our communities. What we’d like to do is have those hours cut, but Northern — there is no reason for Northern at all, except to torture people, and if we’re not about torture we should definitely want to shut that down. When we first started out at Northern I think there were about 200 people, and last I heard down to about 70 people, but we should not be happy that 70 people are being tortured every day. We should not, as human beings, be okay with that. So it should be zero population, shut it down, and let’s work on humanizing the rest of the prisons that we have.
BETWEEN THE LINES: That would save a lot of money.
BARBARA FAIR: Yes, and not only money, lives. If they think about how these people come out of prison. One of the things that the UN doesn’t allow this is they say that some peoples’ brains start functioning in a different manner just within a few days; by 14 days most people’s brains are starting to function in a different way; by 15 days, some people will never recover. And that’s what we see a lot coming back to our community – a lot of people who will never recover from that harsh isolation.
BETWEEN THE LINES: And the organizers of this effort are asking people to call their state legislators every day until mid-January, right?
BARBARA FAIR: Yes, so they know this is important, which is one of the things I said to the crowd. Don’t le this be, Oh this was a great meeting; this was powerful. This was a call to action; you’re going to get out and do something. And part of what you can do is stay on the phone to legislators; even legislators who are not in your area. Try to promote these kinds of conversations in areas where prisons are a huge thing. Write legislators; we want to have public hearings; protests; whatever it takes. But the legislators up in Hartford need to know that we are serious about shutting down Northern and humanizing our prisons.