The announcement came just days after a lawsuit was filed on February 4, 2021, by Disability Rights Connecticut (DRC) seeking to prevent prisoners with mental illnesses from being housed at Northern, where over-reliance on solitary confinement and in-cell shackling put them at risk of severe harm.
Northern is a “supermax” facility—for prisoners who pose the highest security risk—opened in 1995, when the state’s prison population was near an all-time high and DOC was struggling to manage disciplinary infractions throughout the prison system.
Assisted by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Law Clinic (LIHRLC), DRC’s suit alleges that conditions at Northern are horrific for most prisoners and worse for those with mental illnesses, which can exacerbate their suffering in a manner that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Nobody should be subjected to degrading and inhumane confinement,” said Deborah Dorfman, executive director of DRC, “especially those whose behavior can only be addressed by treatment and rehabilitation, not humiliation and infliction of mental and physical pain, and disability discrimination.”
The prison operates three different segregation programs, which are intended to provide short-term placement in solitary confinement at the facility. The Administrative Segregation program is designed to manage “dangerous” prisoners, while the Security Risk Group handles those who are gang-affiliated. Each is supposed to last at least 120 days.
The third program, Special Needs Management, is comprised of exceptionally troubled prisoners, usually those who fail out of the other two programs. This program usually lasts six months.
However, any of the three programs can go on much longer if prisoners incur additional disciplinary infractions or don’t complete certain classes to the satisfaction of the staff.
Adding to the suffering caused by these policies is the prison’s forbidding design. Built to be the ultimate “stick” for prisoners that didn’t respond to “carrots,” Northern’s architect, John Kessler, described its rows of barbed wire outside, and a gray, mostly concrete interior, design elements intended by state officials to “give the feeling of descent” below the earth’s surface.
“There is nothing soft. It’s hard, and they wanted that,” said Kessler.
Regular prisoners at Northern spend 22 to 24 hour per day in a cell, which is a space barely more than a concrete box. When they are permitted recreation, it occurs in a slightly larger concrete box with 14-foot walls topped by a steel cage. The lawsuit describes the conditions as a “world of near total social and sensory deprivation.”
This kind of confinement was condemned in 2020 by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. For those with mental illnesses, it can seem unbearable.
The lawsuit describes what happens when mental illness causes prisoners to “act-out” in response to the torturous conditions at Northern. While other inmates may complete their solitary confinement programs in a few months, prisoners with mental illnesses are repeatedly sanctioned for behavior that actually stems from diseases they’ve been diagnosed with, leading to a vicious cycle of confinement in isolation and full shackling while being confined for years at a time.
Tyrone Spence, a 29-year-old prisoner, spent a total of three years at Northern between 2011 and 2019. He described being “blackboxed” more than ten times—placed in hand and leg shackles that were bound together to restrict his range of motion—after attempts to harm himself that prison officials treated like attention-seeking stunts and disciplined him for.
“You can’t sit down without hurting your hands or your wrists,” Spence later recalled in court filings. “When you sit down it pushes the chain into your wrist. The only way you can be comfortable is to stand up.”
Another prisoner named in the complaint is Kyle Lamar Paschal-Barros, 26, who suffers bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. To cope with extreme stress, Barros sometimes covers the four-inch wide window of his cell. But such infractions led guards to shackle him in isolation on more than ten occasions.
During these episodes, he was stripped of all clothing except for a “safety gown,” and his hands and feet were bound. He was unable to move much, and his meals were served on wax paper on the floor. The lack of utensils, combined with his restraints, forced him to eat his food “like a dog.”
Still another prisoner, Kezlyn Mendez, was transferred to Northern at age 34 in July 2006 following a suicide attempt at another facility that specializes in dealing with mental illnesses. He’s been in and out of Northern ever since, spending a total of five years there.
On three occasions he’s been placed in isolation in a cold, cement cell while totally shackled for anywhere between 24 and 72 hours, unable to physically wipe himself after using the toilet. He’s hallucinated that he heard disembodied voices or had conversations with people who weren’t there. He would put his hand through the slot on his cell door—earning a disciplinary infraction—just because he was desperate for interaction with another person.
“The state-sanctioned policies and practices described in the complaint are known to cause severe, long-lasting physical and psychological harm,” said LIHRCLC’s Ify Chikezie.
Reform groups have pushed for years to close-down the prison, which has a disproportionately high share of minority prisoners, with 84% of the current population either Black and Latinx.
Angel Quiros is a former warden of Northern between 2009 and 2011 who is now acting commissioner of DOC. He is also named in the complaint as a defendant. He has stated previously that the facility has “served its purpose” and, before its closure was announced, had signaled a willingness to review programs at Northern in light of “the criminal justice reform that’s going on.”
From a high of nearly 20,000 prisoners in 2008, DOC’s population had fallen to about 9,000 by March 2021—about where it was in 1990, before construction on Northern began. The prison, which once held as many as 510 men, hasn’t housed more than 100 people since July 2020. It currently holds 65 prisoners. Its closure is expected to save the state about $12.5 million annually. Its 175 employees will be transferred and not laid off, DOC promised.
See: Disability Rights CT. v. Connecticut DOC, Case No. 3:21-cv-00146, U.S.D.C. (D. Conn.).
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Related legal case
Disability Rights CT. v. Connecticut DOC
|Case No. 3:21-cv-00146, U.S.D.C. (D. Conn.)