Incarceration
1:52 pm
Mon October 28, 2013

Film Sheds Light on Hidden World of Supermax Prisons

Yale Law School’s Visual Law Project has created a film about Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut. The documentary film sheds light on the hidden world of supermax prisons, where inmates may be held in solitary confinement for weeks, months, and even years at a time. The film is called "The Worst of the Worst."

WNPR's Diane Orson talked with Aseem Mehta, director of the Visual Law Project, about why they made the film.

Aseem Mehta: Supermax prisons in solitary confinement is exactly one of those public interest legal interests that no ones talking about, and no one knows about. We realized that just 45 minutes from Yale's Campus is a supermax facility, which holds 350 people in solitary confinement, 365 days of the year. It was a totally crazy realization for u,s and we knew we had to follow the story.

Diane Orson:  Talk to me about Northern.  

Northern is a supermax prison. It is a prison designed specifically to hold individuals in solitary confinement. The technical term is "administrative segregation." It was designed with the idea of keeping the most violent offenders away from the general population of prison. We have since learned that it has been overused, and is no longer just for the most violent, but also for those that are suffering from mental illness.

One of the people we met was Misael. He was 18 years old when he was sent to prison for having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend. He suffered from terrible depression upon his entry to prison, and started cutting himself. This was considered such a problem, so difficult to handle in a general prison population, that he was sent to Northern because it was easier for prison guards to control him there. Misael said:

"I didn’t want to live. I was lost. I felt like I couldn’t do anything no more, so I wanted to give up. They felt that Northern was a place to help me with my mental health issues, so that's where they said I would get better treatment. But once I got there, it was the whole opposite around."

You also speak in the film to corrections officers.

That’s right. One of the most surprising things we learned in making this film is that solitary shatters people on both sides of the cell, because their experiences working in Northern were so brutalizing. This is a clip of Wayne, former head correctional officer at Northern, as he talks about the impact that working at Northern has had on him:

"I’ve seen, you know, staff members, their whole personality change. They may abuse certain, you know, alcohol, or may get up in a drug situation at times. Their family life changes; they withdraw."

We spoke to the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections in Connecticut. We also spoke to the warden of Northern, as well as the top advisor on criminal justice issues to the governor. What we learned is that all these officials understand the way Northern has been overused. Yet at the same time, [they] are adamant that Northern does have a role in the state, and will continue to remain.

What do you hope will happen as a result of this film?

Soon after we released the film, the warden of Northern announced that one of the wings of the facility would be closed, and that there would be a small reduction of inmates. We also see that there is some legislative action happening. Finally, we just hope to educate the public, and to bring this issue into the national spotlight.

Connecticut is one state, but 45 states in this country have supermax facilities. That means more than 80,000 people are being held in solitary each day. It’s a huge issue, and one that not many people know about. We hope to get people talking.

Listen to the full interview.