Friday, March 31, 2017

Clinic Students Testify on Confinement

On Monday March 27, students from the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic and the Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic at Yale Law School travelled to the State Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut, to testify in favor of HB 7302, “An Act Concerning Isolated Confinement and Correctional Staff Training and Wellness.” The students were part of a large coalition of community and religious groups who testified in favor of the Bill.

The Lowenstein Clinic has long been representing currently and formerly incarcerated individuals who have been subjected to isolated confinement. In 2010, the Clinic began investigating conditions at Northern Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Somers, Connecticut. The Clinic documented numerous cases of self-harm and found a number of inmates had been held in solitary confinement for years or even a decade.

The Clinic’s investigation sparked a number of reforms by the Department of Corrections. Sameer Jaywant ’18, who testified on behalf of the Clinic on Monday, commended the reforms, which resulted in the decrease of staff assaults, inmate assaults, and suicide attempts. Jaywant emphasized, however, that “without legislative action, there is a significant danger that administrators could return to using prolonged isolation despite the very clear threat it poses to the security and wellbeing of prison staff, inmates, and the public.”

According to Aleksandr Sverdlik ’18, who also testified on Monday, “unnecessary, prolonged isolation is harmful to prisoners, costly to taxpayers, and does nothing to make our communities safer.” The proposed Bill closely tracks administrative changes that have led to a significant reduction in isolated confinement while preserving discretion for corrections officials.

Jenna Pavelec ’17 also testified at Monday’s hearing on behalf of the Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic. The Clinic's testimony addressed the harmful impact solitary confinement has on vulnerable populations, particularly juveniles and individuals with mental illness. “This bill represents an opportunity for Connecticut to codify the DOC’s recent strides and ensure that vulnerable populations are treated humanely and receive the protections they need and deserve.”

The Bill also promotes staff wellness and training on de-escalation techniques and mental illness. Schell Center Executive Director and Clinical Professor of Law Hope Metcalf applauded the work of the current Department of Corrections. Metcalf recognized the hard conditions in which corrections staff operate before reading the testimony of an individual currently held in solitary confinement.

A number of individuals who were formerly held in isolation testified in person on Monday. Keishar Tucker, who was put in solitary confinement pre-trial at the age of seventeen, described how confinement “broke” him. Tracie Bernardi related the lasting effects that being held in isolation have had on her. She described being shaken when, upon arriving at the Department of Motor Vehicles to secure a driver’s license, she found the employees “dressed like corrections officers.”

Lowenstein Clinic student Claire Kim ‘17 ended the public hearing by reading the testimony of an individual who described being sprayed with mace and “left in handcuffs for hours and sometimes days on end” while he was on suicide watch. State Representative Robyn Porter described how the testimonies presented in favor of HB 7302 had left her “belly aching.” State Representative Minnie Gonzalez was shocked to learn that individuals were being held in isolation for years, asking her fellow legislators, “What have we been doing all this time?”

Other members of the Judiciary Committee described visiting the replica solitary cell and thanked members of the community coalition who arranged for it to be exhibited in the State Capitol building. The cell previously was displayed at Yale Law School as part of “Inside the Box.”