Lawsuits allege human rights violations in DOC Security Risk Group Program

When Henry Banks was whisked into the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution in November 2015 as a prisoner awaiting trial, he assumed he was going in with a clean slate. He had been incarcerated before at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, sentenced to 52 months in 2011. During that sentence, in 2014, Banks was designated as a gang member by prison officials and placed in the Security Risk Group (SRG) program.

But that was in the past, he thought. He did his time, paid his debt to society, and while he waited for his trial at Corrigan-Radgowski, he would be treated like every other prisoner.

He was wrong.

According to several lawsuits filed against numerous Department of Correction (DOC) officials, including a lawsuit filed by Banks, DOC officials have allegedly subjected incarcerated people, including pretrial detainees, to the restrictive conditions of the SRG program without a hearing.

Furthermore, the lawsuits describe the extremely restrictive conditions of the SRG program that has led the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on torture to find that the conditions in many instances amount to psychological torture. 

Becoming affiliated

The SRG program is for those who prison officials deem to be members of gangs and thus could be threats to prison security. It is unclear exactly what constitutes a person to be designated as a security risk group member. The DOC did not respond to requests for more information on the program and the separate phases of the program. The DOC also did not respond to requests for comment.

Henry Banks said that he was affiliated as an SRG member because prison officials searched his cell and found tattoo drawings he had done. According to Banks, prison officials said those drawings were gang-related and put him in the SRG program.

Banks, who is now 39 years old, said his previous affiliation with gangs affected his designation as an SRG member. 

“I was incarcerated back in ‘04 in California, so I have a history of being in some of those gangs,” Banks said. 

After his designation as an SRG member, Banks was supposed to have a hearing on his SRG status but, according to Banks, he never got one.

“I was supposed to have a hearing to assess whether I’m still a gang member, if I’m still active, those type of things, and that wasn’t done, so I was kinda like lost,” Banks said. “I didn’t know why because my understanding was always, you know, you pay your debts to society, you right your wrongs and that’s it.”

Banks wasn’t the only one whose decades-old affiliation with gangs came back to haunt him. 

Brian Davila was also incarcerated in his youth and was involved in gangs, but now at 38 years old, he said his affiliation with gangs is over a decade in the past. However, that didn’t stop prison officials from designating him as a gang member while he was incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution.

“They basically were on my past history of 15 years ago, and I was wearing a cross, a religious cross, and they said it was gang-related,” Davila said. “I did probably six hours in general population and then they came and scooped me up and put me in segregation for like 10 days, no reason, nothing, they just put me on pending investigation.”

Davila said when he finally met with a prison official, he was told they were going to designate him as a member of Los Solidos. He never received a hearing to contend his SRG status, and his Freedom of Information Act request to obtain all of his SRG paperwork and evidence they had to designate him as an SRG member was denied, according to Davila.

Anthony Martinez was incarcerated as a pretrial detainee at New Haven Correctional Institution in November 2018. In a recently filed lawsuit against a cast of DOC officials, Martinez alleged that he was designated as an SRG member based on Facebook statuses. 

Martinez had been incarcerated in 2016 and was designated an SRG member then as well. However, according to Martinez’s lawsuit, he had completed the program in September 2017. 

The Facebook posts, Martinez said, were song lyrics and interview quotes from his favorite rap artists. When Martinez tried to explain that to Officer Payne one of the DOC officials named in Martinez’s lawsuit Payne allegedly replied that “it doesn’t matter” and that they were going to find Martinez guilty and send him to the RHU “regardless,” according to Martinez.

He never received a hearing to contest his designation, according to the lawsuit.

Tyler Vaughan alleged in his lawsuit that while detained pretrial, he was affiliated as an SRG member because he was wearing a religious necklace of Santa Maria beads at the time of his arrest. Vaughan had also completed the SRG program during a previous term of incarceration. Like Banks, Davila and Martinez, Vaughan said he never received a hearing to plead his case that he was not a gang member. 

According to Vaughan’s lawsuit, he didn’t get an SRG ticket until several months into his time in the Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU)

“Even now, I still have horrible dreams.”

Upon arriving at Corrigan-Radgowski, instead of being placed in general population, Banks was immediately placed in the Restrictive Housing Unit under an administrative designation while he waited for a classification hearing, according to Banks’ lawsuit. 

However, he allegedly never got one and was instead transferred to Macdougall-Walker to complete phases one and two of the SRG program, a designation based solely on the fact he did not complete those phases before he was released after serving his prior sentence. 

While in the SRG program, Banks was allegedly subjected to conditions like confinement in his cell for 23 hours a day on weekdays and 24 hours a day on weekends, three showers a week in an unsanitary shower stall and no more than three 15-minute phone calls a week, according to the lawsuit.

In the SRG program, the one hour a day during weekdays incarcerated people get for recreation isn’t fun and games. According to Banks, he had his one hour of recreation with his hands cuffed behind his back and was put into what he described as an oversized dog cage with other SRG members, subjecting him to dangerous situations.

“I got into a few fights while I was there, I didn’t intend to get into fights, but I was protecting myself,” Banks said. “You end up in a rec yard with like seven or eight guys and they’re active gang members, they don’t want you around.”

During inclement weather, SRG members still had to go outside for recreation and were given nothing but ripped-up jackets, according to Banks.

“Most of the time, you have handcuffs on so you can’t even put the jacket on, you just have it draped over your shoulders,” Banks said. “And what good is that in a snowstorm or rain? And I’m talking about the worst months of snow and stuff.”

According to his lawsuit, Banks also had no access to television, religious services, contact visits, educational or social programs, and was handcuffed and strip-searched every time he left his cell. Banks says the conditions induced stress, depression, trauma and paranoia.

“Even now I still have horrible dreams,” Banks said. “Being around authority figures, I’m not outwardly anti-authority, but in my mind, I automatically have a problem with law enforcement and it wasn’t always like that. It’s just being unjustly treated this way.”

In his lawsuit, Anthony Martinez makes many similar allegations as Banks. Martinez was subjected to 23-hour weekdays confined to his cell, 24 hours on weekends. Forced recreation in inclement weather, three 15-minute phone calls per week, three showers per week, and one visit from immediate family per week, according to Martinez. He also states in his lawsuit that SRG members are not allowed to be part of congregate programs and must eat meals in their cells, and are denied access to the law library and religious services.

Additionally, SRG members are denied the ability to earn Risk Reduction Earned Credit, which allows incarcerated people to participate in classes and programs that could earn them five days off of their sentence each month. SRG members can only spend $35 a week at the commissary compared to the $75 general population incarcerated individuals may spend a week.

Like Banks, Martinez says in his lawsuit that he was subjected to dangerous situations and was assaulted due to being confined with active gang members.

According to the lawsuit, while incarcerated at Walker, members of the Bloods threatened to kill Martinez because he wasn’t a Blood. After being transferred to Corrigan to begin another phase of the SRG program, he was assaulted by three Bloods during recreation. One of the men who assaulted him threatened to kill him previously, says Martinez.

Martinez suffered cuts on his face and neck as well as lumps and bruises on his head and body from the assault. He received disciplinary sanctions because of the incident, according to the lawsuit.

Martinez said in his lawsuit that he had a panic attack from his post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his 2016 SRG designation and confinement in isolation. He also said he had another panic attack due to all the threats he was receiving.

Tyler Vaughn’s lawsuit states that he suffered a mental breakdown and emotional distress from his time in the Restrictive Housing Unit. 

Brian Davila’s wife, Miosotis Davila-Fornez, said that Brian was denied medical care while in the Restrictive Housing Unit.

“Another inmate has called me telling me he’s screaming in pain and they’re ignoring the call for medical attention,” Davila-Fornez said. “[They have] buzzers in the cell where they call for medical attention, they don’t respond to them.”

Davila-Fornez said her husband needed frequent medical attention due to inflammation in his intestines.

“He has Diverticulitis, he has severe abdominal pain,” Davila-Fornez said. “They don’t give medications the way they are supposed to, he had to take some medications for a certain amount of time when he was released from the hospital, they never gave it to him.”

By himself but not alone

In his initial review of Henry Banks’ lawsuit, United States District Judge Jeffery Alker Meyer referenced the decision made in Almighty Supreme Born Allah v. Milling, a 2017 case involving a formerly incarcerated individual, Allah, that was subjected to almost a year in solitary confinement as a pretrial detainee in a Connecticut prison. 

Meyer wrote that “the Second Circuit concluded that prison officials violated due process when they placed a pretrial detainee in administrative segregation ‘based solely on the basis of his prior assignment to (and failure to complete) the Administrative Segregation program during a prior term of incarceration.’”

According to Banks’ lawsuit, he was placed in administrative segregation as a pretrial detainee based solely on his prior assignment on three separate occasions.

Banks says that he is far from the only one who has endured the conditions that he described.

“The thing that’s crazy about all this is I can say I’ve met probably 100 guys that are in different phases of filing this lawsuit,” Banks said. “The same exact lawsuit, the same problems I went through, same conditions, same hardship I’m going through.”

Meyer went on to state, again citing the Second Circuit decision in Allah v. Milling, that “substantial due process also applies to the conditions imposed on the detainee, which must be reasonably related to a legitimate government purpose, such as institutional security.” Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch said that Allah’s treatment did not meet that standard.

The DOC did not respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for information on the five phases of the program, but claims that the SRG program is evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy, according to a 2019 Benefit-Cost Analyses done by Central Connecticut State University’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy (IMRP).

Hope Metcalf, who along with the ACLU of Connecticut and the International Human Rights Clinic she teaches at Yale Law, has studied the conditions at Northern Correctional Institution since 2011. She says that the programs offered in the lower phases are deeply flawed.

“Certainly, in phase one, I can tell you that it's utter nonsense,” Metcalf said. “They are packets of things that they're supposed to do in their cell, and they ask them to reflect on their emotions and their feelings, all of that may be well and good, but imagine that you're somebody who's in lockdown and you're being asked to fill out this deeply personal information in a system that you don't trust, there's no guarantee of any kind of confidentiality -- how likely are you to really want to be honest and candid?”

“The other thing is that there's no evidence to support that the sorts of programs that DOC use, this SRG program, actually works,” Metcalf went on to say.

Brian Davila said that while he was in the SRG program, he didn’t get the programs that he needed to complete to shed his SRG designation.

“We’re supposed to do seven programs to get out of the SRG block, and they’re not doing it,” Davilla said. “They’re supposed to be giving us programs and they don’t, they just give us the paper to sign, and then they tell the warden that we are doing the programs, but we’re not.”

Torture

Allah v. Milling was the first time the constitutionality of the conditions of the SRG program was challenged in court. It is worth noting that, though the award for Allah was overturned on appeal as the Court found that the prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity, the Second Circuit Court agreed that Allah’s 14th Amendment right to due process was infringed upon.

Metcalf, who is also the Executive Director of the Orville H. Schell Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School, said that the conditions described in these recent lawsuits are also unconstitutional.

“The lawsuits set forth allegations that people are being essentially automatically designated [as SRG] and not being given genuine process and that is a violation of the 14th Amendment,” Metcalf said. “In addition, in many instances, people are being subjected to prolonged isolation and in that case, they are being subjected to the risk of substantial harm to their mental health, and that is also a violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

These recent lawsuits reveal that not much, if anything, has changed since Allah v. Milling was originally decided in 2015. In fact, just last year in response to an allegation letter filed by Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, a human rights expert with the UN found that the conditions the Yale Clinic described amount to torture under international law.

"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," Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on torture, said in a 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."

"These practices trigger and exacerbate psychological suffering, in particular in inmates who may have experienced previous trauma or have mental health conditions or psychosocial disabilities," Melzer went on to say. 

In addition to the unconstitutional conditions Metcalf has seen in lawsuits, she also raised questions about the possible role state prosecutors could be playing in the designation of pretrial detainees as SRG members.

“How is that happening? Is that on the recommendation of prosecutors? Because to the extent that prosecution is involved at all in that decision, that raises real red flags to me about undue pressure and coercion,” Metcalf said. “And if it were the case that prosecutors were attempting to use designation and the subjection of people to isolation as a bargaining tool for plea purposes or to get information or any kind of information extraction purposes, that is clearly torture under international law.”

“Where is DOC getting its information? Either it's as flimsy as they say, which is in the case that it's Facebook, or if they are cooperating with prosecutors, how are we to be sure that they aren't using solitary as an illegal interrogation tool,” Metcalf added.

Solidarity to end solitary 

When talking about the criminal justice system, it’s impossible to not acknowledge the racial disparities in every facet of its institutions. Black and brown people disproportionately make up 57 percent of the U.S. prison population despite making up just 29 percent of the total U.S. population, according to a 2018 report by the Sentencing Project.

The SRG program is no different.

According to a 2019 report by the DOC, of the 82 incarcerated people designated as an SRG, 46 are Black and 23 are Latino, making up 84 percent of the program. 

Metcalf says that’s at least in part due to the DOC being culturally illiterate.

“The DOC, they have an investigative arm, but the truth is, the people who are involved in investigations, are most often not from the communities that people are coming from,” Metcalf said. “They don't understand how neighborhoods work, and they're ascribing gang behavior to people and cultures that they simply don't understand.”

“I interviewed somebody many years ago who had been designated by virtue of a story that he wrote that was a satire of Little Red Robin Hood, and he called it Little Red Robin in the hood, Metcalf added. “And by virtue of that, they designated him because it talked about the color red and in the hood, they figured he was a Blood.”

There is a movement to abolish the use of solitary confinement in Connecticut, which would in turn affect the most restrictive phases of the SRG program that call for 23-hour lockdowns on weekdays and 24 hours on weekends.

A group called Stop Solitary CT has drafted model legislation, The PROTECT Act, that prohibits over 16 hours of in-cell confinement. Public hearings for the bill started on Monday.

Henry Banks has aspirations to start a movement of his own to affect change in the SRG policy.

“When I get out, I’m gonna try to hire an attorney to go after the policy, because I went through it, it’s horrible,” Banks said. “I know it’s gonna affect people and I’m about to do anything to change [it for] the next person so they don’t have to go through that. That’s what I’m for.”

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