Just over 20 years ago, Caron Butler accepted a scholarship offer to play basketball for legendary coach Jim Calhoun at UConn, a college hoops power. He was a top talent with a future on the hardwood ahead of him. But behind him trailed a sordid past of multiple arrests, and a host of “serious mistakes” he readily cops to.
When he was a teenager back in Racine, Wis., Butler was sentenced to 18 months in prison on drug possession and firearms charges. There, he got into a fight and was put in solitary confinement for two weeks. That’s 23 hours a day with no one to talk to, nothing to read, nothing to watch. Nothing but Butler and his thoughts in a cramped prison cell.
He was only 15 at the time.
“Being in those four walls and those four corners, it does something to you,” Butler told The Associated Press. “Mentally and spiritually, it takes away a lot. It dehumanizes you.”
Now, he’s turning his experience into political action.
“Solitary hurts, physically and mentally,” Butler recently wrote in a Hartford Courant op-ed that urged Connecticut lawmakers to pass the PROTECT Act, State Bill 1059, which would, in part, end the use of solitary confinement for prisoners except in emergency situations.
In the newspaper piece, Butler also mentioned the motive behind solitary confinement: punishment, not rehabilitation. “Locked away for 23 hours a day. Cut off from all social contacts. Denied access to the family and community ties who remind you of who you are and who you could become. I got the message loud and clear. Our aim is not to rehabilitate you. We aim to break you.”
But today, the former Husky and current assistant coach for the Miami Heat was in Hartford to push for an end to solitary confinement in state prisons.
Neighboring New York and nearby New Jersey have already passed similar legislation.
In addition to a patch of political activist Angela Davis, Butler wore a “People not prisons” pin and another button for the group Stop Solitary CT.
Barbara Fair, a lead organizer for the group, told the AP that having a person like Butler can be beneficial for the campaign to end solitary confinement. “This is somebody people can connect with,” Fair said of the basketball player and coach. “That’s the biggest problem around our prison systems is that often people have a hard time connecting with the humanity of incarcerated people.”
“It’s important that you do look back,” said Butler during a news conference at the Connecticut Capitol today. “You remember those experiences and remember the people that are being affected by some of the laws that are designed to break you and to dehumanize you and put you in the position where you feel less of a human being.”
S.B. 1059 was approved by the CT legislature last week. It now awaits the signature of Governor Ned Lamont.