Caron Butler can easily point to the lowest moment in his life —
the days he spent as a teenager locked in a solitary confinement
cell inside a juvenile prison.
The former UConn star and NBA player went to Connecticut's state
Capitol 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 be allowed at least
six-and-a-half hours out of their cells and also limits the use of
certain restraints, received final legislative approval early
Sunday. It comes as the state is closing its maximum-security
Northern Correctional Institution, which was designed specifically
to keep prisoners in isolation.
Butler has 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 possession and
He was 15 when he got into a fight in prison and was thrown into
solitary, spending 23 hours a day isolated in a small cell for two
weeks. He had no contact with anyone. He said none of the violence
or other trauma in his young life prepared him for the despair of
“Being in those four walls and those four corners, it does
something to you,” Butler said in an interview with The Associated
Press. “Mentally and spiritually, it takes away a lot. It
Butler said he believes he survived because of a strong family
support system. He discovered basketball in prison. He turned his
life around when he got out to the point that Hall-of-Fame coach
Jim Calhoun saw something in him and offered him a scholarship.
Butler went on to become the Big East's Player of the Year in
2002 and spent 14 seasons in the NBA, where he now is an assistant
coach with the Miami Heat.
But Butler, who is also a trustee at the Vera Institute for
Justice, said he'll never forget what he endured in prison and is
hoping that the Connecticut legislation will serve as an example
for other states.
“Now I look back in hindsight and I want to 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 going to care about this community in real time. There's
going to be change on the horizon. They are going to come up with
ways to rehabilitate that never dehumanize people.”
Opponents of the bill say it will take a tool away from guards
that helps maintain discipline in prisons. But its supporters say
it includes exceptions, such as allowing officers 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,
said while thousands of people have horror stories about living in
solitary confinement, it’s important for someone as well known as
Butler to step forward.
“This is somebody people can connect with,” she said. “That's
the biggest problem around our prison systems is that often people
have a hard time connecting with the humanity of incarcerated
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 Irons, 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 obligation to use it responsibly.
Butler said it's not a coincidence that she and others, such as
former UConn player Renee Montgomery, are active in the push for
social justice reform.
“We were taught by two Hall-of-Fame coaches (Jim Calhoun and
Geno Auriemma) that when you are passionate about something, you
have to find a way to create a wave and make that wave bigger and
create a current,” Butler said. “Just like momentum changes in a
basketball game, you have to impose your will on a situation.”