Lowenstein Clinic Hails Passage of Law in Fight Against Solitary Confinement in CT

A new law will bring Connecticut’s use of solitary confinement out of the shadows. It is the first state law in decades to increase public oversight of the prisoners’ treatment and came after a months-long effort to bring attention to the issue by a coalition of religious leaders, community activists, medical professionals, campus student groups, and other law school clinics, including the Lowenstein Clinic and the Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic.

The bill mandates reporting on all forms of isolation and requires annual reporting about the Department’s efforts to decrease reliance on solitary and to mitigate its effects, according to the clinic. The bill will also ban the placement of children under 18 years of age into “administrative segregation,” the harshest form of long-term solitary confinement currently in use in Connecticut. Additionally, the bill  provides training and support for correctional staff. In a rare showing of bipartisanship, H.B. 7302 passed by unanimous vote in both chambers.

“None of this would be possible without the men and women who have had the courage to speak up about what they have lived through,” said Claire Kim ’17. “Working alongside survivors and community leaders like Barbara Fair has been an extraordinary education.”

The Lowenstein Clinic’s involvement with solitary confinement in Connecticut began in 2010, when it launched an investigation of Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s supermax facility. Working with the ACLU of Connecticut, the Clinic uncovered numerous concerns, many of which are documented in the 2012 film “The Worst of the Worst.” “The human suffering we encountered was simply overwhelming and so needless,” said Hope Metcalf, who co-teaches the Lowenstein Clinic. “People had been there for years, and in some cases, since the prison’s opening in 1995. We met people who were resorting to gruesome acts of self-harm just to know they were alive. It was madness.”

The Clinic shared its findings with the Department of Correction. “Given the Department’s prior history of stonewalling outside scrutiny, we expected to be met with opposition,” noted Metcalf. “But Commissioner Scott Semple has demonstrated a genuine commitment to reducing the Department’s reliance on isolation and to finding humane alternatives.” Over the ensuing five years, the Department reduced the population in administrative segregation by an estimated 80%, according to the clinic.

Because none of the policy changes are codified in statute, however, the progress remained fragile. There was also a question of other, less well-known forms of solitary, such as the Security Risk Group Program, or gang program. “We had high hopes that H.B. 7302 would carry forward the momentum that Commissioner Semple has fostered by providing clear standards,” explained Steven Lance ’18. “We need clear standards to ensure humane treatment while also providing staff with the training and support they need to do their jobs.”

The bill’s final language was a notable departure from the version that originally passed out of the Judiciary Committee. Gone are protections for persons with mental illness or severe disabilities, as well as other protections, such as a six-month cap, that would apply to all individuals in all forms of solitary confinement, the clinic said. The ban on juveniles applies only to administrative segregation, but not to other forms of long-term solitary confinement currently in use.

“There is no pretense that the problem is ‘solved.’ The bill leaves open critical questions—who can be isolated, for what and for how long?,” explained Sameer Jaywant ’18. “But by bringing solitary confinement out of the shadows, we can work towards an informed public discussion that addresses the many harms that solitary imposes—on prisoners, staff, and the public. This is just the start.”

Transparency has other uses, added Metcalf. “We have already seen in the past that, when unattended, it is easy for the Department to slip back to past abuses. Having greater transparency will make it harder for a future administration to hide prisoners in the far corners of the system. We will be watching closely.”