Opinion: To support mental health, we must end solitary confinement

Garner Correctional Facility in Newtown

Garner Correctional Facility in Newtown

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month. When people think about mental health, they may picture therapists helping clients, counselors advising students, or teachers promoting resiliency and kindness. However, our state lawmakers have an important role to play in promoting mental health, as well. In addition to passing proactive mental health support, Connecticut lawmakers should seek to eliminate measures that perpetuate and exacerbate mental illness. One of these measures is the practice of solitary confinement and extreme isolation within the Department of Correction.

Senate Bill 1059, known as the PROTECT Act, would severely curtail the use of solitary confinement. Incarcerated people in every prison across Connecticut would receive eight hours of out of cell time a day. They would not be confined to their cell for more than 72 consecutive hours or for more than 72 total hours and only under very specific circumstances. Though solitary confinement and mental health may seem unrelated, the reality is that the DOC’s rampant use of solitary confinement is creating a mental health crisis within the state. People who enter the system are not being rehabilitated.

A recent study shows that 28 percent of incarcerated people in Connecticut have a mental illness that requires treatment, while an additional 40 percent have a history of mental illness. Considering the disparities in access to mental health care along racial and class lines, it is possible that those percentages are significantly higher. Of that population, many will find themselves subject to extreme isolation.

Imagine if a family member or close friend came to you describing symptoms of mental illness. What would you do? Would you help them find a therapist or psychiatrist? Perhaps research residential treatment programs? Maybe organize other friends or family members to ensure someone is regularly checking in on the person? Or would you lock them into a small, grossly unsanitary room for 23 hours a day and hope that they’ll somehow come out OK in the end?

I would hope most people would be horrified at the mere thought of responding to their loved ones with the last option. Yet that is what the state of Connecticut does to hundreds and thousands of people on a daily basis — and it should be noted that people in solitary confinement, like the general prison population itself, are disproportionately Black and Latino. The state of Connecticut houses thousands of incarcerated people in these conditions for non-disciplinary reasons. In Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, the one prison for those with serious mental illness, people are confined to their cells for 21 hours a day (and sometimes longer) in the general population. This is a common practice in many level four and five prisons in Connecticut as reported by numerous Stop Solitary CT coalition members and their loved ones.

Even for those who do not enter solitary confinement with a mental illness, the constant isolation and deplorable conditions often lead to issues like PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and homelessness. In many cases, people who have been in extreme isolation leave with irreparable mental health issues.

Upon release, the state sends formerly incarcerated people into a social services system that is chronically overworked and underfunded and asks these private organizations to repair the trauma and harm that the state itself caused. The cycle is vicious and completely undermines the mental health and well-being not only of those within the corrections system, but that of their families, friends and communities.

I am currently completing my master’s degree in social work. As part of my curriculum, I must take two courses in social welfare policy. These courses at first glance may seem unnecessary since I want to pursue individual and family counseling. But the reality is that policy is just as essential as one-on-one therapy in promoting mental health. My work as a therapist will be severely undermined if the state continues to uphold policies that mentally and emotionally harm people who are already marginalized. It is up to lawmakers to eliminate such policies wherever possible and up to us as their constituents to demand that they act.

SB 1059 has been voted out of the Judiciary Committee and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor. Call your lawmakers today and ask them to end solitary confinement and promote mental health for all Connecticut residents. For more information about SB 1059 and how you can act, visit stopsolitaryct.org.

Catherine Bradley, of Ridgefield, is a master’s of social work student at Fordham University and a member of Stop Solitary CT.