The following is an excerpt from testimony submitted by the ACLU of Connecticut to the recent Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement, on behalf of a man who had spent nearly two years at Northern Correctional Institution, Connecticut’s supermax prison. With a history of mental health problems, he was placed in the Administrative Segregation Program, where inmates typically spend 23 hours a day in a 7×12 cell. He testifies about the dehumanizing conditions of solitary, and details witnessing others engaging in self-harm as well as one of his own suicide attempts. –Sal Rodriguez
On December 11, 2010, just 8 days after I had arrived at Northern, I was placed on suicide watch. I was placed in Cell 101 on Cell Block 1, in a “strip cell”, which is no different from a regular cell, save for the top iron bunk bed and the table-stool unit being removed. On suicide watch, we were often left in handcuffs, shackles, tetherchain and pad-lock, for hours and sometimes days on end. The cell was freezing, and it was impossible to properly use the toilet or feed ourselves. After being placed on suicide watch in Cell 101, I was placed on this “in-cell restraint” status, for 24 hours unprotected.
Shortly after this, I witnessed an incident that traumatized me, and truly impressed upon me the conditions at Northern. In February of 2011, I watched a prisoner as he started bashing his head against his cell door window. That man was suffering and had been completely denied the mental health care he needed; he was depressed and hurt, he needed someone to understand. So it seemed to me then, when he started banging his head, that it was more like a cry for help—BOOM, BOOM, BOOM! However, he started to gather rhythm; he gritted his teeth—BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM! And I realized that he was self-sedating. The physical pain was quickly becoming preferable to the psychological and emotional pain. I watched him in his agonizing bliss as his tears mixed with blood from his wound.
A prison guard had been by earlier and had seen the prisoner hurting himself, but there was no injury then so the guard kept going. Now he stopped; I could tell by the guard’s profile that for just a brief second he softened and humanity was coming through, but just as quickly as it came it went, and he walked away as if those streams of blood were water. While he walked past my cell I asked him to help the prisoner—he said, “It’s just a little blood.”
In March 2011, I again attempted suicide by hanging. That time, my cries for help were met with a “cell extraction.” Guards rushed into my cell, beat me, and sprayed mace in my face. Following this, I was taken to yet another “strip cell,” placed again on suicide watch, in the same mace covered restraints. I remained hogtied in chains like this for 72 hours. A third suicide attempt in May 2011 met with a similar response. On all three occasions, my days-long confinement in the “strip cell” only exacerbated my mental condition.
At one point, I angrily protested to a corrections officer that “no human being should be treated this way”. He responded, “That’s even considering you are a human being.”
I saw other prisoners accept this notion that they were, or had been made, less than human, and attempt to end their own lives.
This should come as no surprise. Can less than 20 hours of group programs compensate for 6,807 hours of social isolation and reduced environmental stimulation, as well as the repressive cavity and other search and restraint policies? Is this current curriculum prudent, and in its current state, is it worth the communities’ tax dollars and resources? Does the said amount of isolation and sensory deprivation pose a risk to the mental health of its subjects, and thereby, the community at large once these individuals are released directly from that tiny cell into your neighborhood? You cannot isolation chaos and expect rehabilitation.
When prisoners are smearing their blood and feces on walls, eating food out of their toilets; when they are swallowing pens, overdosing, asphyxiating, cutting, and hanging themselves, one should begin, at the very least, to do a thorough evaluation to find out what and put in place the reforms needed.
As a man of many mistakes, but even greater dreams and hopes, I am compelled to declare—out of the isolation that enveloped me—that it is time for institutions like Northern to be reformed. I believe in the American ideals of equality and individual dignity, and I know we can—and must—do better.