Home News Center Congress Holds First-Ever Hearing on Solitary Confinement | Continued

Congress Holds First-Ever Hearing on Solitary Confinement | Continued

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(Continued) Senator Graham said we will see where the information in the hearing takes us, and noted that American values are on view here, that we must make sure our detention policies live within the values of who we are and that we must try to change lives. Later in the hearing, a lawyer from a large South Carolina law firm spoke about pro bono work on a conditions lawsuit over solitary confinement and urged reform.

Troublingly, Sen. Durbin noted that the Justice Department had been invited but declined to attend.

There were two panels of witnesses - the first panel was the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Charles Samuels, and the second panel consisted of the lawyer from South Carolina; a psychologist with expertise in the impact of solitary confinement; the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which has dramatically reduced its use of confinement in the wake of a conditions suit by the ACLU (an organization that has taken a national lead on this critical issue); and a gentleman who served 18 years on death row and solitary confinement in Texas (for an offense he was eventually found to be innocent of having committed) who gave some incredibly compelling first-hand accounts of the conditions and impact. Present also was a woman whose brother was placed in solitary as a juvenile, who committed suicide in prison, and was featured in a video shown by way of introduction. The courage of people with this kind of first-hand experience in speaking out is so inspiring and so compelling, and Senator Durbin was especially kind in his comments thanking these folks, noting that it is their testimony that makes reform possible.

Typically, but disturbingly, the testimony from the federal prison official talked about the need for security in the prisons, calling solitary confinement a "critical management tool", and insisted there are sufficient safeguards in place to to ensure they only use confinement when absolutely necessary. Senator Graham was particularly concerned about protections to ensure mental health services for folks in solitary confinement, and Director Samuels insisted only 3% suffer from mental illness —a statement that was refuted by all who testified subsequently. Senator Durbin was particularly critical of the treatment in the federal supermax in Florence, CO, now under court challenge, noting that there are only two psychologists on staff for the 490 people in solitary there. Director Samuels claimed there is a study indicating no negative effect of solitary.

The director from Mississippi gave a different account, saying that what they were doing, prior to the lawsuit, wasn't working (3 homicides, 1 suicide and high rate of assaults). He said that since they closed Unit 32 (solitary), their violence has reduced by 50%, that they now have a new classification system, better trained staff, and better programming.

Dr. Haney testified that solitary confinement has a deleterious psychological impact, impeding post prison adjustment, and urged that prisons redirect their focus to more humane approaches.

South Carolina lawyer Andrews said they found 40-50% of inmates in the South Carolina solitary confinement unit were actively psychotic and called it cruel and unusual punishment.

Wrongfully-convicted Anthony Graves (who spent 18 years in solitary) said that had survived the "torture" and movingly described how it breaks a man's will to live and dehumanizes us all. There are no words adequate to describe the incredibly moving nature of Mr Graves' testimony, a man who had no physical contact with another human being for ten of the eighteen years, and who is now haunted by memories of the terrible experience.

Senator Durbin ended by stating that we can have a just society and be humane in the process. He held up the stack of written comments submitted and noted the large attendance and said the time has come to address the issue.

The time has come—especially for youth.

Read JJI's Written Hearing Testimony »

Watch the Full Hearing on Solitary Confinement »

Photo: Marco Scano, under Creative Commons License.