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Lamont vetoes prison confinement bill, issues new order

July 1, 2021 GMT

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Gov. Ned Lamont on Wednesday vetoed a bill that limited when isolated confinement or seclusion is used in Connecticut prisons, saying he supports the bill’s intent but wants to make sure inmates and staff are safe.

Instead, the Democrat directed the Department of Correction commissioner, in an executive order, to increase “out of cell time” for all incarcerated individuals, including those in “restrictive status.” He said that will happen “well before the effective dates of the bill,” which would have taken effect a year from now.

“I am not signing this legislation because, as written, it puts the safety of incarcerated persons and correction employees at substantial risk,” Lamont wrote in his veto message. He noted the bill puts “unreasonable and dangerous limits” on the use of restraints, among other measures, that could place people at risk.

It’s unclear whether the Democratic-controlled General Assembly will attempt to override the veto, which came as a surprise and disappointment to some advocates.

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Joseph Gaylin, a steering committee member for the group Stop Solitary CT, said Lamont’s executive order falls far short of what’s needed to ultimately reduce the amount of time inmates in Connecticut spend in prolonged isolation.

“This was an executive order developed behind closed doors,” said Gaylin, who said the governor, without talking to them, “fundamentally gutted” provisions in the bill that would have expanded outside oversight — something advocates say is needed to get a handle on what the conditions are like inside Connecticut’s prisons.

Gaylin called it “ludicrous” for Lamont to say in his veto message that expanding such oversight could lead to more litigation.

“The only reason why there could be litigation is because the prison conditions could be so bad that it could trigger litigation,” Gaylin said.

Under his executive order, Lamont ordered the Department of Correction to allow incarcerated people at least four hours of out-of-cell time each day. The use of isolated confinement in disciplinary status must be limited to 15 days, allowing for at least two hours of out-of-cell time each day.

“Under my order, the use of isolated confinement in restrictive status programs must end,” said Lamont, arguing the new rules in his executive order are “stronger” than rules imposed by other states and the United Nations.

In contrast, Gaylin said the bill that Lamont vetoed would have allowed 6.5 hours in daily out-of-cell time, for inmates in isolated confinement and in the general prison population, barring extraordinary circumstances.

Barbara Fair, the lead organizer for Stop Solitary CT and a steering committee member, said she was not surprised by Lamont’s veto. She called it a “spit in all the faces” of the people who pushed for the legislation. Many advocates, including Fair, were at the state Capitol almost daily lobbying for the bill, even though the building was closed to the public because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Connecticut’s use of solitary confinement was called out in 2020 by an expert on torture with the United Nations. Nils Melzer, special rapporteur on torture for the UN, said isolating inmates as punishment could amount to psychological torture, and specifically mentioned Connecticut’s practices.

“The DOC appears to routinely resort to repressive measures, such as prolonged or indefinite isolation, excessive use of in-cell restraints and needlessly intrusive strip searches,” Melzer said in the statement. “There seems to be a State-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, which may well amount to torture.”

Karen Martucci, a spokesperson with the state Department of Correction, said at the time that the agency’s policy around what it calls administrative segregation does allow for meaningful engagement through group programming, recreation, family social visits, phone calls and interactions with counselors and clinicians.

Under Lamont’s order, however, the DOC commissioner will be required to file a report within 90 days outlining the steps being taken to increase “contact visits” and decrease the use of in-cell restraints.

Wednesday marked the first time Lamont has vetoed a bill that was passed during the recent legislative session.