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Congress Holds First-Ever Hearing on Solitary Confinement

June 28, 2012

Though solitary confinement is widely used in U.S. prisons, it’s cruel and often highly damaging to individuals’ mental health. That’s why U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) held the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on June 19.

Adolescents are especially vulnerable to the deleterious mental health impacts of solitary confinement, which is part of the reason why Elizabeth Clarke, of the Illinois-based Juvenile Justice Initiative (JJI), an NJJN member, attended the hearing in person (see below for a link to the written testimony she submitted for the hearing). Here’s her account of the hearing:

Yesterday, our good Illinois Senator Durbin held a hearing on the issue of the use of solitary confinement in federal and state prisons and jails in the U.S. While the hearing focused on the adult system's use of solitary confinement, the comments were applicable to the juvenile system. JJI submitted testimony and I attended the hearing yesterday in Washington, D.C., along with other Illinois advocates supporting the closing of Tamms, the Illinois prison exclusively devoted to solitary confinement which the [Illinois] Governor has proposed closing. Kudos to the Senator's staff for an incredibly well-organized, effective and moving hearing, and to the amazing Liz Ryan, who works such magic behind the scenes.

The hearing was before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Durbin. It was put together with short notice, just in the past two weeks, yet was packed—they had to set up an overflow room that held 180 folks watching the hearing on monitors. One example of the careful planning—the hearing room included a full-scale prison cell, illustrating what is meant by solitary confinement.

Senator Durbin was joined by Senator Lindsey Graham (R - SC) and by Senator Al Franken (D- MN). Sen. Durbin opened the hearing with a statement, noting the "alarming" increase in the use of solitary confinement since the 1980's, referring to his tour of Illinois' Tamms facility frequently, calling it an "eye-opener." He noted that the U.S. holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other nation on earth, with 56% of the inmates in Illinois spending time in solitary. He noted the recent rise of solitary confinement for especially vulnerable groups, including low-level offenders, those with mental health issues, children, and—recently—immigrants who have not committed any crime. He called for a ban on solitary confinement for all under the age of 18.

Senator Durbin asked "What do America's prisons say about our nation and its values?" and said we must meet basic standards of decency, noting that the example of the cell in the hearing room with its stark sterility and unrelenting monotony did not rise to these fundamental standards. He frequently referred to his sponsorship and passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, trying to minimize the harshness of the crack/cocaine laws, and ended by quoting Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) comments about how solitary confinement breaks a man's spirit ("It's an awful thing, solitary," McCain has said) and stating that solitary is especially costly both in dollars and in recidivism, stating that we must have a clear-eyed view of the impact. He said he will introduce legislation on this issue. (Continue reading)

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Read JJI's Written Hearing Testimony  »

Watch the Full Hearing on Solitary Confinement »

Photo: Political Activity Law, under Creative Commons License. 

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