Lowenstein Clinic Represents Disability Rights Group in CT Supermax Prison Lawsuit

The Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic joined several partner organizations in suing the Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC) on February 4, 2021, alleging continued physical and psychological abuse of people with mental illness incarcerated at Northern Correctional Institution (“Northern”), the state’s only supermax prison.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court on behalf of Disability Rights Connecticut (DRCT), argues that the DOC’s use of prolonged isolation and in-cell shackling of people with mental illness who are incarcerated at Northern constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and constitutes disability discrimination under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. DRCT seeks a court order barring the admission of people with mental illness to Northern and the DOC’s continued use of prolonged isolation and in-cell shackling of people with mental illness at Northern.

In addition to the Clinic, DRCT is represented in the suit by the ACLU of Connecticut and Morrison & Foerster LLP­­­­­.

“Nobody should be subjected to degrading and inhumane confinement, especially those whose behavior can only be addressed by treatment and rehabilitation, not humiliation and infliction of mental and physical pain, and disability discrimination,” said Deborah Dorfman, Executive Director at DRCT.

DRCT’s complaint details the horrors of prolonged isolation and in-cell shackling on people with mental illness incarcerated at Northern. The allegations describe the DOC’s isolation of people with mental illness, among other individuals, at Northern in small concrete cells for 22–24 hours per day where they “live in a near total social and sensory deprivation.” Their only daylight comes through a narrow slit at the back of their cells, and “meaningful social interaction is nonexistent,” according to the complaint.

“The state-sanctioned policies and practices described in the complaint are known to cause severe, long-lasting physical and psychological harm,” said Yale Law student Ify Chikezie ’22, a member of the Lowenstein Clinic. “The lawsuit seeks an end to these egregious abuses.”

The DOC also subjects people with mental illness, among other individuals, to in-cell shackling where their hands and legs are cuffed and then tethered together for 24 hours or even days at a time — even for minor disciplinary actions which are often manifestations of their mental illness, according to the lawsuit.  The complaint alleges that the DOC often leaves shackled people with mental illness in freezing, unsanitary “strip” cells that are sometimes covered with urine and feces. Many have been physically scarred from their repeated in-cell shackling.

“Northern staff chained me up more than 50 times, often with the chain so short I had to bend or crouch the whole time,” said Tyrone Spence, whose experience with prolonged isolation and in-cell shackling is described in DRCT’s complaint. Spence survived multiple suicide crises while at Northern. “Now, just the sight of handcuffs can give me debilitating anxiety. Those years at Northern made me feel like I’d lost my humanity. I don’t want anyone else to have to experience what I’ve been through,” he said.

“People who are incarcerated are people with lives, health, and dignity that matter. The state’s inhumane treatment of people with mental illness at Northern Correctional Institution violates the law and shocks the conscience. It is cruel, discriminatory, and unconstitutional, and it must end,” said Elana Bildner, staff attorney at the ACLU of Connecticut.

Northern Correctional Institution opened in 1995 and for years has been the subject of lawsuits and sustained advocacy opposition, according to those involved in the case. In 2020, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture condemned the use of solitary confinement as likely tantamount to torture. Since its founding, Northern has disproportionately incarcerated Black and Latinx people, and more than 84 percent of people incarcerated at Northern today are Black or Latinx.

The Clinic has worked to investigate and challenge human rights violations occurring at Northern Correctional Institution since 2010. In 2019, the Clinic submitted an allegation letter to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture detailing human rights abuses taking place at the prison.

The Lowenstein International Human Rights Law Clinic is a legal clinic at Yale Law School that undertakes projects on behalf of human rights organizations and individual victims of human rights abuses.