In Texas, a prisoner named Dennis Wayne Hope has served 27 years in solitary confinement. He is attempting to have his case heard by the Supreme Court of the United States, arguing that the practice of isolating incarcerated individuals long-term violates the 8th Amendment’s ban against “cruel and unusual punishments.”
Whether the Court will eventually consider his case remains to be seen. But throughout the nation, there is increased scrutiny of the prison system, including right here in Connecticut.
On Oct. 26, a group of advocates opposed to the use of solitary confinement rallied on the sidewalk in front of Cheshire Correctional Institution on Highland Avenue. They say the state is not doing enough to comply with Public Act 22-18, known as the Protect Act, which Governor Ned Lamont signed back in May.
“(The Protect Act) enacts limitations on the amount of time and circumstances under which an incarcerated person may be held in isolated confinement in state prisons and jails, and places new requirements on its use,” per a state release.
Barbara Fair, founder of Stop Solitary Connecticut, organized the rally and spoke passionately against what she characterized as continuing state violations of the new law’s letter and intent.
“I’m getting letters from people all the time (from prison),” she said, explaining that her correspondents report conditions such as 22–23 hours a day of confinement, non-emergency lockdowns, lack of access to education, and arbitrary discipline for minor violations.
Underlying the criticism of specific practices is Fair’s philosophy that “people were not meant to be in cages.”
“The (state) took away their liberty, but they didn’t take away the right to be treated as human beings,” she continued.
Fair pointed to the United Nations’ Mandela Rules where the First Rule reads, “All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings. No prisoner shall be subjected to, and all prisoners shall be protected from, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, for which no circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification. The safety and security of prisoners, staff, service providers and visitors shall be ensured at all times.” Most institutions in Connecticut are failing to meet that basic standard, in her telling.
“Is this the way we should treat human beings?” Fair asked.
Several of those in attendance at the rally spoke from experience about the emotional and physical hardships of solitary confinement.
At one point, a prisoner phoned in from Osborn Correctional Institute in Somers, making claims of inhumane treatment, including prisoners being forced to relieve themselves on themselves, use of four-point restraints, and suffering from hallucinations brought on from extended time in solitary.
The lawyers for Dennis Wayne Hope make similar claims in their petition. “Mr. Hope’s vocal cords have atrophied from lack of use, his muscles from having only a three-foot-square space for movement, and his eyesight from staring only at the inside of a cage. He has been plagued by hallucinations and thoughts of suicide,” they write.
Though Texas and Connecticut may seem worlds apart at times, Fair says Connecticut must do far more to follow its own laws.
“How dare they disobey the law without consequence,” Fair said, suggesting that the next steps for her organization might be turning to the federal Department of Justice if reforms are not implemented.
Pointing out that many of those who end up in prison suffer from untreated mental illness, Fair said that, “Mental illness is (also) being created by people being put into cages. People are not coming out rehabilitated and we are responsible for their recidivism.”
Pastor John Lewis from Life Center Ministries of New Haven, who spoke during the rally, called it “a movement, not a moment,” and asked for more churches and faith leaders “to do God’s work” of advocating for those who have lost their freedom and are suffering.
Fair mentioned that 40% of those (in Cheshire Correctional Institute) are pre-trial detentions, meaning they have not been convicted or sentenced.
“They just can’t afford to get out,” she said.
Although the Governor’s passage of the Act after an initial veto was welcome progress for reformers, Fair insists that much more work needs to be done for justice. “We have to stay on top of the Protect Act. We need you to continue to show up in Hartford,” she told the dozens of supporters gathered on Highland Avenue. Fair also passed out gas money to some of those in attendance to help defray their costs.
“I believe (the Protect Act) strikes the right balance between maintaining a safe and secure environment for everyone within the Department of Correction’s facilities, while also working towards the objective of minimizing the effects of long-term impact of incarceration,” Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros said in a statement. “This signing of this bill also shows what can be accomplished through negotiation and collaboration. At the end of the day, we all have the same goal — the successful reintegration of those in our care.”