Former NBA player Caron Butler can easily point to the lowest moment in his life — the days he spent in jail locked in a solitary confinement cell as a teenager.
The former UCONN star and NBA player went to Connecticut’s state capital on Monday to ask Gov. Ned Lamont to sign legislation that would strictly limit the use of solitary confinement and other forms of isolation in prisons.
The bill, which requires almost all inmates to be allowed at least 6.5 hours out of their cells, as also limits the use of certain restraints, received final legislative approval on Sunday morning.
It also comes as the state is set to close its maximum-security Northern Correctional Institution, which was designed specifically to keep prisoners in isolation.
Butler has long been open about his struggles as a youth in Racine, Wisconsin. He dealt drugs, and was arrested more than a dozen times before spending more than a year in prison on drug and firearms charges.
He was just 15 when he got into a fight in prison and was thrown into solitary confinement, spending 23 hours a day isolated in a small cell for two weeks. He had no contact with anyone. He also mentioned that none of the violence or other trauma in his young life prepared him for the despair of that situation.
“Being in those four walls and those four corners, it does something to you.” A mentality and spirituality, it takes away a lot. It dehumanizes you.” Butler said in an interview.
Caron believes he only survived because of the strong family support he was given, but he’s quick to say all prisoners don’t have that type of support. While in prison he discovered basketball and became really good at it.
When he was released he turned his life around and Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun saw something in him and offered him a scholarship. Butler went on to become the Big East player of the year in 2002, and spent 14 seasons in the NBA, where he’s now an assistant coach for the Miami Heat.
One thing about Butler who’s a trustee at Vera Institute for Justice, this is near and dear to his heart and he says he’ll never forget what he endured in prison. That’s why he’s hoping that Connecticut legislation will serve as an example for other states.
“Now I look back in hindsight and I wanna tell my younger self to stay hopeful.” He said. There are people out there that care. There’s going to be elected officials out there in the future that’s gonna care about this community in real time.
There’s gonna be a change on the horizon. They are going to come up with ways to rehabilitate and never dehumanize people.”
Opponents of the bill believe it will take a tool away from guards that helps maintain discipline in prisons.
But its supporters say it includes exceptions, such as allowing an officer to isolate a prisoner when that is needed to protect someone’s life. But there will now be a review process to ensure that isolation ends.
Barbara Fair, the lead organizer for the Stop Solitary CT campaign, part of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, mentioned while thousands of people have horror stories about living in solitary confinement, it’s important for someone as well known and respected as Butler to step forward.
“This is some people can connect with,” she said. The biggest problem around our prison systems is that often people have a hard time connecting with the humanity of incarcerated people.”
Butler is not the first former UConn star to advocate for criminal justice reform.
Maya Moore left the WNBA to wage what became a successful fight to overturn the wrongful conviction of Jonathan Iron, who later became her husband.
She also started a social action campaign called Win With Justice, designed to call attention to the power wielded by prosecutors and their obligations to use it responsibly.
Butler says it’s not a coincidence that she and others, such as former UConn player Renee Montgomery, are in active push for social justice reform.
Being coached ad taught daily by Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma two Hall of Fame coaches showed them when you’re passionate about something, you must find a way to create a wave and make that wave bigger and create a current.
“Just like momentum changes in a basketball game, you have to impose your will on a situation,” Butler said.