Colleen Lord rushed back to the kitchen to tend to the roast beef in the oven, leaving me for a few minutes to nervously explore her home. Her West Haven condo sat on the Long Island Sound with a window facing the water. The space was decorated with light blue and purple wallpaper, and a reproduction of a Monet painting hung on the wall. Photos of Colleen and her kids, smiling and rejoicing in each other’s company, stood on a ledge above the electric stove.
To the left of these photos was a little memorial plaque made of black stone. “Carl Robert Talbot. May 30, 1988-March 21, 2019,” it read.
When I arrived earlier that day, Colleen introduced me to her dog, Ruby, a three year old “Cavachi,” a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel-Chihuahua mix. Ruby has kept Colleen company since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. By then it had already been a year since she had lost her son, Carl Robert “Robby” Talbot. The loneliness had become unbearable. So Colleen decided to adopt a dog in his memory.
“In Hebrew, Ruby means first son.” Colleen tossed a treat to her dog. “And Robby was my first son.”
Hospitals and prisons were a revolving door in Robby’s thirty years of life. Robby struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He had been in and out of Yale-New Haven Hospital many times and was often arrested for possession of marijuana or trespassing. After his last arrest for violating parole, he was brought back to prison at about 10 PM on March 19, 2019. Two days later, at 9:40 AM, he was pronounced dead.
When the phone rang and the news came of Robby’s death, Colleen told me that she asked the correctional officer at the other end of the line, “What happened to my son?” It took Colleen seven months to get the medical examination report, another year for her to access the material used during the State Attorney’s investigation, and several months more to make sense of scattered evidence from footage, medical reports, and correctional officers’ testimonies.
Now, we were sitting in front of the 19 minutes of camera footage, provided to her by the state attorney around a year and a half ago, that depicted the four sprays of mace and the kick Robby suffered in his last moments of life. Colleen pressed play.
If I wasn’t choked with shock and anger, I would have cried watching Robby’s life fade in front of my eyes. I told Colleen that I could watch it alone, in case she felt it would be traumatizing to rewatch the video. But Colleen stayed. As the video played, she hit pause at several moments to calmly explain what was going on; were it not for the subtle tremble in her voice, it might have seemed like we were just analyzing a movie.
“Many times,” Colleen replied when I asked how many times she’d watched the footage. “Sometimes I would be like ‘Oh, what did he say?’ and go back and redo it and write everything down in the timeline and identify all of the officers in there and compare what statements they said.” She forced a smile. “I still cry every day.”
Based on the video, a publicly available report by the state attorney, and Colleen’s memory, the events leading up to Robby’s death are fairly clear.
On Tuesday, March 19, 2019, Robby took what would be his last dose of methadone in the morning. In the evening, Robby was remanded to custody in the New Haven Correctional Center for staying in a hotel with his father, which violated his parole. That night, in prison, Robby had a psychotic episode.
The next day, Robby’s withdrawal was worsening, and he was sent to the medical unit for psychological evaluation. Robby started yelling, screaming, smearing feces over himself and the cell.
The day after that, Robby was taken to shower and clean off. He had difficulty leaving the shower. Lt. Carlos Padro stood by the door, ordering Robby to stand up. He soon lost patience and stepped into the tiny bathroom. He pepper-sprayed Robby twice and kicked him once in the torso. Robby screamed and pleaded, I can’t breathe! … I can’t see! Help me!
A person who is pepper sprayed needs to rinse the affected area for 15 minutes, according to CDC guidelines. Robby’s eyes were rinsed for only 10 seconds.
Robby was sent back to solitary confinement instead of to a medical unit to rinse the chemicals off his skin. He fell out of his wheelchair in the elevator. The surrounding police officers told him to stand up, and Robby tried. But, as a 400 pound man in a narrow space, he couldn’t.
The officers were growing impatient. Robby repeated “I’m sorry,” then “my skin is on fire,” and “help!” Lt. Padro pepper-sprayed him again.
In Robby’s solitary confinement cell, the officers chained him to his bed. He writhed in pain—every inch of his skin burned. Lt. Padro was still repeating the word “Stop.” He sprayed Robby again. Robby screamed for it to stop.
Other officers went in and out of the cell. They couldn’t stand the chemical agent in the air. Correctional Officer Charles Washington, whose first name was not disclosed in the report and who had been standing outside the cell, entered and lunged for Robby to hold him down by his chest.
Robby gulped, and once again managed to grit out the words, can’t… breathe. He never said anything else. He lay motionless in bed while officers continued attaching him to chains.
“Good job to everybody.” Lt. Padro said when the officers finally left the room. Robby was left alone in his unventilated, contaminated cell for around 90 minutes. At approximately 8:57 AM, Lt. Champion determined that Robby was not breathing, and he was sent to Yale New Haven Hospital.
At 9:40 AM, Robby was pronounced dead.
Colleen eventually decided not to release the video. “I just keep thinking about what the state attorney said to me—not to make it public because there are ‘cruel people who have sick websites exploiting videos like this,” Colleen said. “I am cognizant that change comes [more] swift[ly] when people actually see what happened on video.”
The New Haven Independent not only covered Robby’s death but also paid tribute to him and his life in a profile published on March 25, 2019. Through their coverage, Robby’s death became a huge local story and sparked discussions about the prison system and police brutality in New Haven.
Despite the publicity surrounding Robby’s death, however, nine months after that terrible morning Colleen was still desperately trying to find out what exactly had happened to her son. In December 2019, she still hadn’t received any state police documents and videos. Around that time, she read an article about a group named Stop Solitary CT (SSCT), in which Karen Martucci, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, was quoted defending the practice of solitary confinement, saying that isolation “is reserved for the most violent, unmanageable” offenders, such as one who recently “embedded a fan blade in another inmate’s skull.” Colleen knew from Robby’s case that Martucci had mischaracterized the policy.
It was then, she told me, that she started to believe that the Connecticut DOC was running a legalized system of “torture,” a system with far-ranging repercussions beyond the death of her son. So when an SSCT member reached out to Colleen in December, 2019, she met him in a coffee shop in New Haven to learn how she could get involved.
Stop Solitary CT
SSCT was founded in 2017, by a group of activists who had worked together in 2015 as part of the national ‘Unlock the Box’ campaign to end solitary confinement. They decided to found SSCT after their first piece of legislation passed in 2017. One of these founders was Barbara Fair, a lifelong activist in New Haven fighting for criminal justice, whose work has been covered in the CT Mirror, the New Haven Independent, and The Politic. Fair had witnessed firsthand how her youngest son’s mental health rapidly deteriorated during his solitary confinement at Northern Correctional Institution, where he was kept during pre-trial at the age of 17. She decided to make it her life’s work to end the pain solitary confinement inflicts. Over the years, SSCT has brought together people like Colleen, former Department of Corrections (DoC) officers, formerly incarcerated people, and legal experts. Together, they have been fighting to end solitary confinement statewide and replace isolation with a humane, safe, and rehabilitative system, such as providing education opportunities and reentry programs to incarcerated people.
In 2019, Yale Law Professor Hope Metcalf, who has worked closely with SSCT, argued in a letter to the UN that Connecticut’s practices of isolation and in-cell chaining qualify as torture. In 2020, the UN stated that prolonged solitary confinement (without meaningful human contact for 22 hours for more than 15 consecutive days) amounts to psychological torture.
In February 2021, SSCT called on the Connecticut legislature to pass the PROTECT Act. The Act ensures that all incarcerated people can leave their cells for at least 6.5 hours per day, limits isolation confinement strictly to emergencies, and prohibits it from lasting more than 72 hours in a 14-day period. It also prohibits assigning members of vulnerable groups (such as young people, pregnant people, and people with mental illnesses or disabilities) to solitary confinement, and guarantees access to medical and mental health supervision. The act would also prohibit excessive use of “in-cell restraints”—locking someone in a cell using metal shackles and chains for up to 72 hours—and would guarantee one weekly 60-minute social contact visit to protect social bonds.
The PROTECT Act was passed by the State House and Senate’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary with overwhelming bipartisan support in April 2021, and in early June the full Senate voted to pass the Act. But on June 30 Governor Lamont vetoed it, in a move that activist groups like SSCT said was meant to appease the Correctional Officers’s Union, whose members threatened to strike if the Act passed. In a statement at the time, Lamont claimed that the Act “puts the safety of incarcerated persons and correction employees at substantial risk…[and] places unreasonable and dangerous limits on the use of restraints.”
Instead, Lamont replaced the bill with an executive order that can be revoked at any time. The order provides people in solitary confinement just 4 hours out of their cells each day, and allows DoC to incarcerate people for 22 hours per day for up to 15 days in a row, or 30 days in a 60-day period if an “exception” is granted. The order also contains no protections enabling inmates to preserve social bonds, places no limits on in-cell restraints, and guarantees no ongoing transparency or independent oversight of the reforms.
The executive order seems to have made little difference in the lives of incarcerated people. According to letters written by inmates of the Cheshire Correctional Institution, the prison has often gone on full lockdown due to “staff shortage” or COVID-19, leaving people locked in their cells for 24 hours.
This year, SSCT is again pushing for the state legislature to pass the PROTECT Act during its 2022 legislative session. At a recent panel that took place on January 22, Professor Metcalf and State Senator Gary Winfield of New Haven, who introduced the PROTECT Act, collaborated with SSCT members to educate people on the purpose of the bill, and to explain why the Governor’s executive order was insufficient to secure necessary reforms. Colleen, along with Tracie Bernardi, Ray Boyd, and Michael Braham, all three of whom were formerly incarcerated, attended the panel to share insight into the ways solitary confinement had forever altered their lives.
Seven Years in Solitary
After the panel, I reached out to Tracie to learn about her life in solitary confinement. Her story was also reported this February in The Politic.Tracie lived in horrific conditions for 23 years at York Correctional Institution (a prison in East Lyme, Connecticut’s only state prison for women), starting in 1993. She spent seven of those years in solitary confinement. Those seven years taught her things she never imagined she would ever have to learn, like how to take a shower in handcuffs and how to talk with other inmates through toilets and ventilation ducts. Tracie now has severe PTSD: she is still bothered by lights, she can’t stand the sound of a television, even at low volume, and she’s got anxiety attacks from certain noises, like jingling keys.
Initially, Tracie was sentenced to solitary confinement for two years. Yet each subsequent time that she was issued a disciplinary ticket, the time she had already spent in solitary confinement was discounted, and she had to start all over again. Once she got a ticket for giving a tea-bag to another girl because they weren’t allowed to share personal items, or “commissary.” Another time she slid a plastic garbage bag to another inmate without first asking the guard if she could. Two years became seven years, and her body, now in constant aches and pains, recalls the damage of that time.
After sleeping on a metal bed for years, Tracie told me her hips are bad—her back, her shoulder, everything aches. Sometimes, in solitary, she wasn’t given enough to eat. She recalled hearing guards making cruel announcements, saying “Oh, I spit in someone’s tray today, I wonder whose that is.” In moments like those, she preferred to stay hungry. Her body was also a means of humiliation. Doctors announced whatever medical problems she had in public, she told me. Once, a guard asked a larger, mentally ill girl to dance and make a fool out of herself. Sometimes, Tracie told me, guards strip searched them just to laugh at their bodies. “All of these made me worse,” Tracie said. Since there was no independent oversight that accepted inmates’ complaints, Tracie and other incarcerated women suffered all of these in silence.
It was hard to get a sense of what was going on in the outside world while in solitary confinement. All the windows were tinted with a painted black film, and it took Tracie a long time to finally scratch a little of it off. Once in a while she could make out squirrels climbing up a tree or people’s feet as they were walking by. Human contact was nearly impossible. For a period of time, she was only allowed visits from her lawyer. On the rare occasion that her family visited, she had to meet them in handcuffs.
The humiliation and the loneliness severely damaged Tracie’s mental health, but asking for help often made it worse. Tracie told me that people in solitary confinement are often penalized for “overusing” mental health counseling, and she was no exception. When Tracie told the correctional officers that she was suicidal and needed help, she was put into the special room in “J tier,” designed for people who wanted mental help. According to Tracie, the two J rooms were the dirtiest rooms. They had a connected pipe system, so when one toilet flushed, the contents passed to the toilet in the other room. Tracie found herself crying more in the J rooms than before. She said that this is what the system had been built to do—to punish people for asking for help, and to let them languish without it. In the fifth year of solitary confinement, she came close to death, once attempting to hang herself.
Tracie said at the January 22 panel that she hadn’t known there was a group of people on the outside fighting for her while she was in solitary confinement. Now, she is fighting from the outside herself. Though Tracie did not have access to education programs during her time in solitary confinement, she began taking college courses with Quinnipiac, Trinity, and Wesleyan through their Center for Prison Education (CPE) program after being released from solitary in 2007. Once she was released from prison in 2015, she attended college at Capital Community College and then at Trinity College. She’s now a recovery support specialist, a leader of ACLU Smart Justice, and a frequent speaker at SSCT events. Fighting for criminal justice, such as advocating for abolishing solitary confinement, is a way for Tracie to make sense of 23 years in prison. Now 42 years old, Tracie can’t help but wonder, “What do people see when they look at me—what do they see?”
You See Lost Souls
Looking at Ray Boyd’s gray and white beard, I could see the time that had passed him by. We met at the Starbucks near Yale’s campus for an interview; he is a man of few words with a quiet, low voice, but he put everything he had to say in his autobiography, The Model Inmate. Ray takes lots of pride in his book and always carries it with him. When I asked him if I could get a copy somewhere, he immediately took one out of his bag and offered it to me as a gift with his signature on the title page.
Ray started his incarceration at Cheshire Correctional Institution, about half an hour north of New Haven, in December, 1992. In Cheshire, though not officially acknowledged, everyone is in solitary confinement: Ray told me that the only difference between “regular confinement” and “solitary confinement” at Cheshire is that the former has two hours outside cell time instead of one hour. He wrote: “As my cell door slid open I stepped out unsure of where I was heading; however, I had quickly realized when I came to prison the one thing that I would find myself getting used to was following the crowd in whatever direction they were flowing in.”
The flow, he told me, sends people into a deep abyss. As Ray recorded in his writing, many people were using church service as an excuse to find more out-of-cell time. “It was as if every crook, robber, rapist, thief, murderer and gangbanger [had] found their god on the inside,” Ray wrote. “The place looked more like hell if you’d ask me.”
Some choose to escape reality through medicine. “You got the individual who just could no longer take the hand that he was dealt and could no longer take prison; so, to cope with it he runs to the medication line each day and night to self-medicate to avoid the daily reality of being in prison,” he wrote.
Ray came back home in November of last year. Like myself and other young people around the country, he is working to get his driver license. A few days after our interview, Ray texted me that he unfortunately failed his DMV learner permit test, but he wished me good luck.
Formerly incarcerated people have to learn to live normal lives again after they leave prison, especially those who were in solitary confinement. For many, this proves to be a difficult task. Michael Braham, who I also met at the SSCT rally on Dec 10 and who was also featured in a February 2022 article in The Politic, wasn’t allowed to have any visitors, including family and friends, or to keep any commissary other than religious texts during his time in solitary confinement. In December, after being released for 6 months, Michael was asked about how he was adjusting to life after prison at the SSCT panel. He said, “Adjustment? I don’t know how I am adjusting. I hardly sleep, I sleep three hours per night.”
During his incarceration, Michael received his Associate’s degree, two Bachelor’s degrees and his certification as a paralegal, and he is now working with his former attorney Alexander Taubes LAW 15’. In January, Ray and Michael came back again to support SSCT. Ray said “I just wanna come home and advocate for it, you know, for what is right.” Michael echoed that sentiment: “I saw Barbara was fighting for us, so I decided to join the fight.”
“I Was Diagnosed with PTSD”
The problems that solitary confinement creates—the use of overwhelming force and physical restraints, the humiliation at the hands of guards, the lack of proper mental health and counseling, the hostile and toxic prison culture—are felt by everyone involved. Kevnesha Boyd is a former therapist at New Haven Correctional Center. Kevnesha was Robby’s therapist. Witnessing her own parents’ incarceration and the impact the War on Drugs had on the Black community, Kevnesha pursued a career in criminal justice and landed her dream job at the DoC, a place where she believed she would be able to provide people with much-needed help.
Kevnesha started working at NHCC in 2015, and her dream job soon became a nightmare. She noticed that the DoC essentially had no enforceable code for the care of incarcerated people and the system resisted delivering actual treatment. Kevnesha witnessed and heard accounts of myriad abusive practices. An inmate told her that when they flushed their toilet, the feces would come up in the water fountain because the pipes were connected. Punching the wall became a common practice, as inmates injured themselves to distract from their deeper existential pain. She says someone once told her “I just needed to see blood, because sometimes I can’t tell if I’m alive.” Another patient said, “I didn’t want to kill myself until I got on suicide watch.”
Day after day, she was unable to provide the health care people needed: The DoC policy only allowed her to meet with her patients once a month, privacy was never guaranteed, calling her clients by their first name wasn’t allowed, and the people she wanted to work with didn’t always trust her.
“It started to change how I was showing up as a mental health professional,” Kevnesha recalled. “It started to change how I was treating people, it started to change how I was thinking, and ultimately it started to change me personally, my relationships, my ability to sleep, my ability to be at ease.”
Kevnesha’s anxiety worsened, and she started to become paranoid about losing her medical license because she knew she was delivering a low level of care. As a mental health counselor herself, she started going to therapy.
There are some memories that Kevnesha still agonizes over. Kevnesha met Robby and became friends with him during his incarceration from September 2018 to January 2019. She remembered Robby’s gentle, naive behavior, remembered Robby’s love for his mother, that he always looked forward to family visits, and that he wanted to get better. Kevnesha wasn’t there the morning Robby died, but when she came in for the evening shift, she became distraught at the level of indifference at the prison. There was no discussion, no mourning. Officers went about their days, talking about Robby’s death without any regard for him as a human. That was Kevnesha’s last straw. Soon after that, she resigned from the DoC. She later joined SSCT and submitted testimony in support of the PROTECT Act.
Solitary confinement is more than a punitive practice; it is a system that teaches incarcerated people violence instead of rehabilitation. And it brings out the worst part of correctional officers, who were once normal citizens. It damaged the bodies and minds of Tracie, Ray, and Michael. For Kevnesha and Robert Gillis, a former warden who worked with DoC for 36 years, not a day goes by without them thinking about their involvement with solitary confinement, which compromised their ethical values and made them more callous. Fundamentally, solitary confinement calls into question what we believe to be the purpose of the criminal justice system: punishment or rehabilitation?
As Tracie wrote in a poem: “Can’t I the devil confess that you are Lord / and I too taste in Heavens reward / Can we finally bridge the gap between Heaven and hell / Can’t I the devil bask in your forgiveness as well?”
* * *
In March 2020, the state attorney’s office released a report on Robby’s death investigation. The report concluded that “based on the independent review of all the investigative materials, it is the opinion of the State’s Attorney that no actions of any individual Department of Corrections official can be determined to be a proximate cause in the death of Mr. Talbot… no criminal charges will be brought with respect to Mr. Talbot’s tragic death.”
On a sunny afternoon in January, Colleen recounted Robby’s story to me. We sat in her condo by the Long Island Sound, staring out across the blue. As we watched the footage of Robby’s death, she closed the curtains—it was “too sunny.” By the time we pulled them open, it was 5PM, and the sky was painted a melancholic blue. We fell silent. We paused the interview to watch the sun set above the sea—the sky turned vibrant yellow, blazing orange, and then bloody red as the sun burnt through the clouds. And then, it calmed down. There was pure, thick darkness, and we resumed our conversation.