Solitary confinement, by any name, can irreparably harm people. It is counterproductive, cruel, and it must end. In Connecticut, people of color are more likely to be punished with solitary confinement relative to the overall incarcerated population. In fact, in 2019, Connecticut was the absolute worst state in the nation for disproportionately assigning Black men to solitary.
"What would you do if I was your daughter or sister or friend? Would you let them cage me endlessly like an animal?"
The PROTECT Act, S.B. 1059, is a bill introduced in 2021 that would end solitary confinement and abusive restraints in the Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC). On March 22, 2021, Smart Justice leader Tracie Bernardi testified before the Judiciary Committee in support of the PROTECT Act. Here is what she told the committee:
"Senator Winfield, Representative Stafstrom, Ranking Members Kissel and Fishbein, and distinguished members of the Judiciary Committee:
My name is Tracie Bernardi, I am an ACLU Smart Justice Leader and The co-founder of Once Incarcerated, Once Inc. During my twenty-three years in prison I served seven long years in solitary confinement. I can tell you without a doubt that solitary confinement still exists in Connecticut. A rose is a rose by any other name. Just the same, solitary confinement is still solitary confinement no matter what alias they assign it. Solitary confinement, restrictive housing, close custody, administrative segregation, detention, punitive segregation. The SHU or RHU. Whatever term or title you want to use, 23 hours locked mostly alone in a cell is cruel and unusual punishment.
The most abuse happens in the darkest places. Solitary confinement drives the human spirit to despair. Allowing prisons a separate, isolated, and private place to punish people only promotes abuse within the correctional system. The Department of Corrections, like the police, has to have accountability for the way they treat the people that the state entrusts into their care. Guards live under a cloak of secrecy that enables them to deny inmates their human rights and dignity. I know this because I spent over seven years in solitary confinement.
I went to jail at the age of 19, sentenced to thirty years of incarceration. I entered solitary at age 26. I did not see the light of day until I was 32 years old. I spent seven winters alone, seven springs alone, seven summers alone, and seven falls alone. Seven consecutive years without human contact. I nearly went crazy. I even hung myself. That’s how bad it got. What would you do if I was your daughter or sister or friend? Would you let them cage me endlessly like an animal?
For many of those years I took three showers a week – if I was lucky – and in handcuffs. I received food not fit for a dog through a slot in my steel cell door and then had to deal with the guards threatening that they may have spit in one of our trays. We would starve ourselves because of how afraid we were to eat their phlegm. So yes, there needs to be oversight and an independent ombudsman.
We need to ensure that the people in Connecticut prisons and jails are not being abused and reabused, traumatized and retraumatized.
Even people with thirty-year sentences come home. I have been home for a little over five years. I’m a stepmom and have a family that I love and that has, over the past year since the pandemic, depended on me to make sure that the kids are homeschooled. I was a warm line operator to give peer support to people who are struggling with trauma in their life. I hold weekly meetings on Zoom for formerly incarcerated people to share the variety of challenges they face as they try to rebuild and move forward with their lives.
Society will be safer when we come home better, not worse, than when we went in.
Now that you’ve had a firsthand account of solitary you can’t pretend you don’t know. You must do the right thing and pass SB 1059. The ACLU Smart Justice campaign supports the passage of SB 1059. Thank you for your time today. I am happy to address any questions the committee members may have."