Former NBA star Karen Butler is among those asking Connecticut’s governor to sign a bill that would strictly limit the use of solitary confinement in prison.
Karen Butler can easily point to the lowest moment of her life – the days she spent as a teenager in solitary confinement inside a juvenile prison.
The former UConn and NBA star plans to ask Governor Ned Lamont to sign legislation at Connecticut’s state capitol on Monday that would strictly limit the use of solitary confinement and other forms of prisoner isolation in prisons.
The bill, which requires nearly all prisoners to be allowed at least 6 1/2 hours out of their cells and also limits the use of certain restraints, received final legislative approval on Sunday morning. It comes as the state is closing its maximum-security, Northern Correctional Institute, which was designed specifically to keep prisoners in isolation.
Butler has been open about his struggles as a youth in Racine, Wisconsin. He traded drugs and was arrested more than a dozen times before being jailed for more than a year on drug possession and firearms charges.
He was 15 years old when he got into a fight in prison and was thrown into solitary confinement, isolated for 23 hours a day in a small cell for two weeks. He had no contact with anyone – no books, no radio, no television. He said that no violence or other trauma in his young life prepared him for the despair of that situation.
“Having those four walls and those four corners, it does something for you,” Butler said in an interview with the Associated Press. “Mentally and spiritually, it takes a lot. It dehumanizes you.”
Butler said he believes he survived because of a strong family support system. He discovered basketball in prison. His life changed when he reached the point where Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun saw something in him and offered him a scholarship.
Butler became Big East’s Player of the Year in 2002 and spent 14 seasons in the NBA, where he is now an assistant coach with Miami.
But Butler, who is also a trustee at the Vera Institute for Justice, said he will never forget the torture he suffered in prison and is hoping the Connecticut law will serve as an example for other states.
“Now I look back and I want to tell my younger self to remain optimistic,” he said. “There are people out there who care. In the future there are going to be elected officials who will take care of this community in real time. Change is going to be on the horizon. They’re going to bring in ways of rehabilitating people who never need to. Don’t dehumanize either.”
Opponents of the bill say it would take away a device from guards that helped maintain discipline in prisons. But its proponents say it includes exceptions, such as allowing authorities to isolate a prisoner when it is needed to protect one’s life. But now there will be a review process to ensure that the isolation ends.
Barbara Fair, lead organizer of the Stop Solitary Whistle campaign, part of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said thousands have horror stories about living in solitary confinement, but moving on to someone known as the butler is important.
“It’s someone people can connect with,” she said. “The biggest problem around our prison system is that it is often difficult for people to connect with the humanity of those imprisoned.”
Butler is not the first former UConn star to advocate for criminal justice reform.
Former UConn Women’s star Maya Moore left the WNBA for wages in what turned out to be a successful fight to reverse the wrongful conviction of Jonathan Irons, who would later become her husband. He also started a social action campaign named Win with Justice, designed for Note the power exercised by prosecutors and their obligation to use it responsibly.
Butler said it’s no coincidence that he and others, such as former UConn player Renee Montgomery, are active in social-justice reform.
Butler said, “We were taught by two Hall of Fame coaches (Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma) that when you’re passionate about something, you have to create a wave and make that wave bigger and create a current.” have to find a way out,” Butler said. “Like a change of pace in a basketball game, you have to impose your will on a situation.”