Clinic Calls on UN to Condemn Use of CT Supermax for Incarcerated COVID Patients

Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic submitted a letter to the United Nations arguing that isolating sick prisoners in Connecticut’s Northern Correctional Institution, a facility the letter calls “punitive by design,” violates international law. The letter contends that inflicting solitary confinement on incarcerated COVID-19 patients amounts to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners, which international law prohibits.

The April 22nd letter is the second submission that the Clinic has made to the UN regarding inhumane practices at Northern, Connecticut’s only supermax prison. Previously, the Clinic filed an allegation letter documenting the Connecticut Department of Correction’s (CDOC) use of extended solitary confinement, physically painful shackling, and unsanitary conditions. The Clinic highlighted Northern as a site of the most egregious abuses. In February 2020, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Nils Melzer affirmed the Clinic’s findings, writing that the CDOC appeared to be engaged in “a State-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, which may well amount to torture.”

The Clinic’s latest letter was written in the wake of the CDOC’s announcement that “all offenders who have tested positive for COVID-19” except “women, youth, [and] those with acute mental health issues” will be transferred to Northern. As of April 20, 2020, 183 individuals were housed in medical isolation in the supermax facility. The CDOC has reported 293 total cases of COVID-19 in its custody.

According to the letter, the Clinic found that people in medical isolation at Northern have no access to property, recreation, or even showers. For the past several weeks, the letter said, isolated prisoners were denied access to all forms of external communication, including legal calls. They did not receive any medical care beyond daily temperature and blood pressure checks.

“Barely a month after the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture condemned Connecticut’s use of solitary confinement, the CDOC is sending sick people to 24-hour lockdown, without access to basic necessities, in its most notoriously punitive facility,” said Mary Charlotte Carroll ’20, a member of the Lowenstein Clinic team. “This policy displays a complete disregard for the health and safety of those in the CDOC’s custody.”

The conditions described in the letter, the Clinic argues, violate the Convention Against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

The letter also warned that sending people to medical isolation at Northern will not effectively prevent further spread of the virus. The Clinic reported multiple instances of visibly symptomatic individuals remaining in general population for days or weeks before being isolated and noted a growing reluctance in the incarcerated population to report symptoms to staff, out of fear of being sent to Northern. As a result, the letter concludes, “the [CDOC’s] reliance on Northern will likely expose more people to the virus.”

“Sending people to solitary at Northern is completely inappropriate from a health perspective,” said Isa Qasim ’20, another Lowenstein Clinic team member. “The CDOC’s policy is not only cruel and inhumane, but also completely ineffective.”

The letter closes by asking the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to condemn the CDOC’s continued engagement in torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of the people in its custody.