Moral Low Ground

US Government

US Senate Holds Hearing on Prison Solitary Confinement

The US Senate held a first-of-its-kind hearing on solitary confinement in prisons, a practice that is widely recognized– although not by US authorities– as a form of torture.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, led by chairman Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), convened the hearing on Capitol Hill. Around 200 people showed up to witness this extraordinary event.

According to Mother Jones, some 80,000 inmates languish in solitary confinement in US prisons and jails on any given day. These men, women, boys and girls are locked away in tiny cells for up to 23 hours a day, sometimes for years or even decades. The United States locks more people in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation on earth.

Charles Samuels, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)– which holds more than 11,000 inmates in solitary confinement, was the first to testify at the Senate hearing. Samuels defended the practice, arguing that “segregated housing” is necessary and used sparingly. Samuels asserted that solitary confinement is a successful “deterrent” of violence, although he conceded that the BOP had never studied the efficacy of segregated housing.

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps refuted Samuels’ claim, pointing to a 50 percent reduction in prison violence after his state reduced its segregated housing population by 85 percent.

There was harrowing testimony from Craig Haney, a psychology professor from the University of California Santa Cruz who has spent years studying the ill effects of solitary confinement. Haney said that solitary has severe adverse mental health effects on prisoners, leading some to psychosis, self-mutilation and suicide. “Prisoners have cut off parts of their bodies,” he testified.

Stuart Andrews Jr., a lawyer for mentally ill prisoners held in solitary confinement in South Carolina prisons, recounted the tragic tale of one non-violent but mentally ill and retarded prisoner who was thrown into solitary over hygiene issues. That man was found “lying face-down in his own vomit and feces” and “died of neglect, alone in a cold cell.” Andrews, who testified that mentally troubled inmates are two to three times more likely to be held in solitary confinement, accused prisons of eschewing psychiatric facilities for isolation, which he says acts as a “warehouse” for prisoners with mental illness.

Anthony Graves spent 18 years locked up in Texas prisons, 12 of those years on death row, for murders he did not commit. He was exonerated and freed in 2010 and testified at Tuesday’s hearing about the horrific effects of solitary confinement, in which he was held for most of his time behind bars.

“No one can begin to imagine the effect isolation has on a human being” Graves said, unless they have experienced it themselves. He recounted how he mutilated and tried to kill himself to end the agony. Solitary confinement “breaks a man’s will to live,” he testified. To those who doubt how horrible it is, “I say, go live there for 30 days, and then tell me that,” he said.

Contact with other people is a basic human need. Without it the mind literally breaks down. In wartime, solitary confinement is a serious violation of both the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions. A 1992 study of 57 Yugoslav prisoners of war found that the most severe brain abnormalities occurred in the men who had experienced physical trauma, like severe blows to the head, or in those who had been subjected to solitary confinement.

“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who spent two of his five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam in isolation, once said. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” McCain was no stranger to “other forms of mistreatment,” having been severely tortured by his captors.

The US military studied scores of former POWs from the Vietnam War and concluded that solitary confinement was as excruciating as any physical torture the men had endured. Among Guantánamo detainees, extended periods of isolation sometimes led to serious mental illness, even insanity.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) suggested forming a commission to carry out a “top to bottom” study of our nation’s criminal justice system. Franken and Durbin pointed to Mississippi’s reforms as examples for others to follow. Holding a hearing on solitary confinement was a good start. But much more needs to be done. The United Nations has been pushing for a ban on solitary confinement. But even countries with much better human rights records than the United States continue to lock prisoners away in isolation, so it looks like solitary will be a prominent feature of  American prisons for the foreseeable future.


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