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Closing Conn.’s Only 'Supermax' Prison Was 20 Years In The Making For This Advocate

Barbara Fair
Courtesy Stop Solitary CT
Barbara Fair

Connecticut's only maximum security prison — Northern Correctional Institution — will close in July, according to Governor Ned Lamont. Northern houses more than 50 inmates. Barbara Fair, an activist with Stop Solitary CT, has worked for more than 20 years to close the prison. Her crusade began in 1998 when her son was sent to Northern.

Fair said her teenage son was in pre-trial detention when the state sent him to Northern, a Supermax prison known for solitary confinement and restraints.

“To end up in Northern, that’s the harshest punishment that they had in DOC, and to think that my young son was in that place was crazy for me,” Fair said in an interview with WSHU’s Davis Dunavin.

"I ended up at home going through sleepless nights, crying spells, panic attacks. I remember many nights just getting up in the middle of the night and just walking to the door because I felt like there was not enough air in the house for me, I needed more air just to breathe. Because I felt my son pulling at my spirit. I could feel him suffering and crying out, and I couldn’t do anything to help him. And that almost drove me crazy.”

Fair cofounded a group called Stop Solitary Connecticut, working with a Yale Law School clinic.

Barbara Fair: I just went on this campaign of just reaching out to anybody, everybody. Legislators, mental health organizations, commissioner, anybody that I could that would listen to please let my son get out of this place.

Davis Dunavin, WSHU: And there’s something about Northern in particular, I understand, that made it particularly bad, that actually goes into the construction of the building. It was built to break people’s spirits.

BF: Yes, and that’s the sick part. Northern represents sadism and racism. Because if you look at who ends up in Northern, it’s 85 or higher percentage of Black and Brown people. And when you look at the population in Connecticut, we only make up 30% or less of the Connecticut population. So not only was it a sadistic mind that created this, but it took a racist mind to maintain it.

DD: A UN human rights expert in 2019 said practices used at Northern could amount to torture — like solitary confinement and shackling. Criminal justice advocates describe the prison as a concrete box.

BF: And their incarceration is about being in a cage 20, 22 hours a day. And so we said that had to end. We were looking for people to have at least eight hours outside of their cell if they wanted it. We said we had to stop the restraints, because in Northern they have what they call inside restraints, so, you already in Northern being tortured, and then you’re restrained, hand, feet. Even thinking about it’s just, like, so cruel. How do you do that to another human being?

DD: I know this is not the end of this story, but it must still be a big victory for you, and just a great feeling, to hear that Northern is going to close.

BF: It is a huge victory. For me, it’s like day one, I think, of me healing from when Northern impacted my young son’s life.

DD: Fair and other criminal justice advocates spoke with Angel Quiros, the state prison commissioner, when he took the job last year.

BF: And we talked about things we’d like to see happen and huge for us was Northern being shut down and we also wanted to make clear that Northern is not going to be repurposed, used for someone else. Because no one should be in that kind of confinement. And so we want to make it clear that just closing Northern, that’s step one. But we don’t want to see that building even standing. For me, I want to be there the day the the crane shows up to take that building down. I know that’s going to further my healing, my son’s healing and probably hundreds of people who have been through Northern, and have suffered in Northern, that are now in our communities as damaged and broken people. And so I’m waiting for that day to happen.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.