An historic congressional hearing on solitary confinement in United States prisons was held today by the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. Chaired by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, it was the first-ever hearing on the use of isolation in prisons and the human rights, fiscal and public safety consequences created.
The hearing was broken up into two panels of witnesses. The first panel included Charles Samuels, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, DC. The second panel included Christopher Epps, commissioner for the Mississippi Department of Corrections; Stuart M. Andrews, Jr, a partner with Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough LLP in South Carolina who represents mentally ill inmates held in isolation; Dr. Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California in Santa Cruz who has studied effects of isolation on inmates; and Anthony Graves, a criminal justice reform activist and founder of Anthony Believes who was held on death row and in isolation for 18 years before being exonerated a few years ago.
Testimony from Graves was, not surprisingly, the most startling and powerful testimony of the hearing. He shared his experience on death row:
I was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Texas back in 1992, where my nightmare began. Like all death row inmates, I was kept in solitary confinement. I lived under some of the worst conditions imaginable with the filth, the food, the total disrespect of human dignity. I lived under the rules of a system that is literally driving men out of their minds. I was one week away from my 27th birthday when I was arrested, and this emotional torture took place for the next 18.5 years. I survived the torture by believing in my innocence and hoping that they would make it right. My life was saved, but those 18.5 years were no way to live.
I lived in a small 8 by 12 foot cage. I had a steel bunk bed, with a very thin plastic mattress and pillow that you could only trade out once a year. By the time a year comes around, you’ve been virtually sleeping on the steel itself. I have back problems as a result. I had a steel toilet and sink that were connected together, and it was positioned in the sight of male and female officers. They would walk the runs and I would be in plain view while using the toilet.
The vivid detail he used to describe how prisoners are dehumanized and treated like animals was profound (e.g. how they had to obey correctional officers like pets if they wanted meals). He described seeing fellow inmates turned into paranoid or schizophrenic people who wanted to commit suicide and how they tried to kill themselves:
…I will have to live with these vivid memories for the rest of my life. I would watch guys come to prison totally sane and in three years they don’t live in the real world anymore. I know a guy who would sit in the middle of the floor, rip his sheet up, wrap it around himself and light it on fire. Another guy would go out in the recreation yard, get naked, lie down and urinate all over himself. He would take his feces and smear it all over his face as though he was in military combat. This same man was executed; on the gurney and he was babbling incoherently to the officers, “I demand that you release me soldier, this is your captain speaking.” These were the words coming out of a man’s mouth, who was driven insane by the prison conditions, as the poison was being pumped into his arms. He was ruled competent to be executed…
Graves has been free for nearly two years but he still cries at night because no one can relate to what he went through. He battles loneliness. Therapy hasn’t worked. He made his therapist cry more than him, because “she couldn’t believe that our system was putting men through this sort of inhumane treatment.” He hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since being released. Typically, he can sleep for two and a half to three hours at a time and then he wakes up. He has mood swings and mental breakdowns. He concluded, “Solitary confinement makes our criminal justice system the criminal. It is inhumane and by its design it is driving men insane. I am living amongst millions of people in the world today, but most of the time I feel alone. I cry at night because of this feeling. I just want to stop feeling this way, but I haven’t been able to.”
One of the most horrifying pieces of testimony was what Dr. Haney had to say about solitary confinement driving prisoners to engage in self-harm or mutilation:
…Many prisoners become so desperate and despondent that they engage in self-mutilation and, as I noted early, a disturbingly high number resort to suicide. Indeed, it is not uncommon in these units to encounter prisoners who have smeared themselves with feces, sit catatonic in puddles of their own urine on the floors of their cells, or shriek wildly and bang their fists or their heads against the walls that contain them. In some cases the reactions are even more tragic and bizarre, including grotesque forms of self-harm and mutilation—prisoners who have amputated parts of their own bodies or inserted tubes and other objects into their penises—and are often met with an institutional matter-of-factness that is equally disturbing…
Haney’s submitted testimony further describes a prisoner in New Mexico using a “makeshift needle and thread from his pillowcase to sew his mouth completely shut.” It describes an inmate at the federal supermax prison known as ADX who, while in solitary confinement, amputated a pinkie finger, chewed off the other, removed a testicle, sliced off his ear lobes and severed his Achilles tendon with a sharp piece of metal. And, it describes an inmate in Massachusetts who has disassembled his television set multiple times, eaten the contents and had his stomach pumped. Each of these inmates are returned to solitary confinement and not placed in psychiatric facilities that can address their mental health.
Systematically, Haney outlined what happens to people in addition to “clinical symptoms and syndromes.” The prisoners develop what he calls “social pathologies.”
The unprecedented totality of control in these units occurs to such an exaggerated degree that many prisoners gradually lose the ability to initiate or to control their own behavior, or to organize their personal lives. Prisoners may become uncomfortable with even small amounts of freedom because they have lost confidence in their own ability to behave in the absence of constantly enforced restrictions, a tight external structure, and the ubiquitous physical restraints. Even the prospect of returning to the comparative“freedoms” of a mainline maximum security prison (let alone the free world) fills them with anxiety.
For many prisoners, the absence of regular, normal interpersonal contact and any semblance of a meaningful social context in these isolation units creates a pervasive feeling of unreality. Because so much of our individual identity is socially constructed and maintained, the virtually complete loss of genuine forms of social contact and the absence of any routine and recurring opportunities to ground thoughts and feelings in a recognizable human context lead to undermining the sense of self and a disconnection of experience from meaning. Some prisoners experience a paradoxical reaction, moving from initially being starved for social contact to eventually being disoriented and even frightened by it. As they become increasingly unfamiliar and uncomfortable with social interaction, they are further alienated from others and made anxious in their presence. In extreme cases, another pattern emerges: this environment is so painful, so bizarre and impossible to make sense of, that they create their own reality—they live in a world of fantasy instead. Finally, the deprivations, restrictions, the totality of control, and the prolonged absence of any real opportunity for happiness or joy fills many prisoners with intolerable levels of frustration that, for some, turns to anger, and then even to uncontrollable and sudden outbursts of rage.
Facilities in the criminal justice system can function properly without units that hold prisoners in isolation for long periods of time. Commissioner Epps was present at the hearing to testify to this reality. He led a wide-scale reform in Mississippi that led to a unit that had been used for solitary confinement being completely shut down. They reviewed inmates that were being classified for isolation cells and realized many were over-classified. The Mississippi Department of Corrections decided to develop programs, incentives and counseling to help prisoners. Not only was this good for prisoners but, according to Epps, it reduced violence about fifty percent. It made the state prison safer, as there were now way fewer incidents of outbursts where prisoners were being violent and engaging in acts such as throwing feces and urine at correctional officers.
Charles Samuels, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, would not, however, admit that inhumane treatment of the nature previously mentioned occurs in federal prisons. He would not call it isolation or solitary confinement. He referred to it as “segregation-type housing.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked him whether solitary confinement acts as a deterrent for violent behavior in prisons. Samuels couldn’t give him a straight satisfactory answer. He had no data to prove it is making prisons more safe. Graves noted Samuels obscured how long inmates are really held in isolation. Graves was held for ten years. Other fellow inmates were held twenty or thirty years. And when Sen. Durbin questioned him on the effects of being confined to a cell for twenty-three hours a day, he provided vacuous-sounding administrative jargon-laced talking points that he probably rehearsed the night before the hearing and dodged answering the question directly:
DURBIN: …Do you believe that isolation – 23-hour isolation – has a negative impact on the mental health of an individual?
SAMUELS: I believe for those individuals who warrant placement in restrictive housing due to their behavior associated with mental health for the safety and security of the individual facility and staff in general that there is a method and a process for ensuring that the inmate receives periodic evaluations and mental health treatment from our mental health providers to determine that we are monitoring these individuals in a manner that we can safely house them within those conditions.
DURBIN: I will concede the fact that there is a monitoring responsibility and perhaps it’s written into the guidelines for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. But, I am asking as a person who has been in corrections: Do you believe you can live in a box like that, twenty-three hours a day? A person who goes in normally and it wouldn’t have any negative impact on you?
SAMUELS: I would say that for individuals who are in that status that for any inmate in the Bureau of Prison our objective is to always have the individual to freely be in the general population. And we do everything we can with our resources to ensure that we’re working toward working to get the individual into the general population.
DURBIN: Trying to zero in on the specific question: Do you believe that confinement, solitary confinement—twenty-three hours a day, five hours a week you’re allowed to leave that box [inaudible]—do you believe based on your life experience in this business that is going to have a negative impact on an individual?
SAMUELS: Sir, I would say I don’t believe it is the preferred option and that there would be some concerns with a long confinement.
Finally, Senator Al Franken was present for the hearing. He asked the witnesses on the second panel what they would think about setting up a Criminal Justice Commission that would make policy recommendations and conduct a broad review of the criminal justice system in America. Haney said he would “enthusiastically support” such a measure as such an evaluation was “long overdue.” The country is “mired in a series of policies that have led to mass incarceration. The topic of today’s hearing, I think, is an outgrowth of that mass incarceration.”
“We can reform solitary confinement and we should, but it’s part of a larger system that needs to be evaluated and understood as flawed in many of the same ways,” declared Haney. “We put far too many people in prison. We pay far too little attention to what happens to people while they’re there. We keep them there for far too long and then we disregard what happens to them when they try to make the difficult transition to come out to the free world. These kinds of problems are exacerbated with respect to solitary confinement but they are not unique to solitary confinement.”
Andrews added it would be a mistake to limit any review to just the criminal justice system. The “increase in the number of individuals with mental illness who have been incarcerated directly correlates to the decision by state and federal government to deinstitutionalize and reduce funding for programs for the mentally ill throughout the country,” he stated. Franken was in complete agreement.
The issue of solitary confinement receives very little attention in society and especially in politics. Politicians do not want to talk about treating prisoners humanely because there is this stigma that elected officials have to be “tough on crime.” This hearing was an excellent first step toward compensating for the incredible inattention and indifference to human suffering that exists in the United States.
There were only three senators that participated in the hearing — Durbin, Graham and Franken. Durbin acknowledged the grassroots organizations that had pushed for the hearing. He praised members of the public in attendance for showing interest. There were eighty people seated in the room and one hundred and eighty people in an overflow room. The public interest in solitary confinement, along with the profoundly disturbing testimony of people like Graves, isn’t a guarantee that Congress takes action. Congress rarely takes action these days on substantial issues that affect and impact the lives of people. It does, however, make it likely that there will be more done on this issue in the aftermath of this hearing. And there is good reason to believe that the diligence by grassroots groups that led to this hearing will produce future developments that increase attention on this issue and push the country closer to doing away with solitary confinement in more prisons in the country.
All testimony from the hearing can be read here (see witness testimony listed in right-hand column).