Solitary confinement -- a needed prison option or human rights abuse?
WASHINGTON – “I lived in a small 8-by-12 foot cage,” said Anthony C. Graves, recalling that he “had no physical contact with another human being for at least 10 of the 18 years I was incarcerated.”
Tears brimmed in his eyes as Graves, wearing a grey suit, looked across the Senate hearing room at U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and gave his assessment of the impact of extended solitary confinement on prisoners:
“Solitary confinement breaks a man’s will to live, and he deteriorates right in front of your eyes,” Graves said. “It is inhumane, and by its design it is driving men insane.”
Graves, who was exonerated in 2010 after spending 18 years on a Texas prison’s death row for crimes he did not commit, was the most dramatic witness in a hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights and human rights that featured a full-size wooden model of a solitary cell in the room’s corner.
Durbin chaired the hearing, billed as the Senate’s first on the topic of solitary confinement in the nation’s prisons, jails and detention centers. “The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world,” he said. “The dramatic expansion of the use of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can’t ignore.”
Most witnesses at the June 19 hearing focused on the public safety, human rights and fiscal issues raised by solitary confinement among this nation’s 2.3 million inmates or detainees – by far the highest per-capita rate of incarceration in the world.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated that more than 80,000 people are held in some kind of restricted detention – in what corrections officials refer to variously as solitary confinement, isolation, segregation or “supermax” prison housing.
In Illinois, 56 percent of inmates have spent some time in segregated housing, Durbin said, noting that solitary confinement can be costly. Keeping a prisoner in isolation at the Tamms Correctional Center, a 500-bed maximum-security prison in Tamms, Ill., costs more than $60,000 a year, compared to the $22,000 average for inmates in other Illinois prisons.
Statistics for Missouri were not available on Friday. A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Corrections in Jefferson City said state prison officials have been trying to decrease the number of state inmates in solitary confinement, and that there has been a downward trend in those numbers.
"The Department of Corrections works to ensure a safe environment for
the staff and offenders at our facilities," said Chris Cline, director of communications for the Missouri corrections department. "By increasing overall safety through efforts like our Restorative Justice programs, we reduced the need for administrative segregation."
Charles E. Samuels Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told the Senate panel that solitary confinement was a “critical management tool” for separating “dangerous and disruptive” inmates who pose a threat to the safety of guards or fellow prisoners.
Samuels said about 7 percent of the 218,000 federal prisoners under the bureau’s jurisdiction are kept in isolation cells. Many of those are in the ADX supermax prison in Colorado, which houses about 490 of the federal system’s most dangerous prisoners.
Under questioning from Durbin and U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., Samuels said federal prisons tried to keep mentally ill patients away from such incarceration and asserted that a Colorado study had found “no negative effect” from periods of solitary confinement.
But other witnesses at the hearing – including Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has been studying the psychological effects of solitary confinement for more than three decades – argued that isolation can cause mental problems and is not really effective as a deterrent.
“Solitary confinement continues to be used on a widespread basis in the United States despite empirical evidence suggesting that its existence has done little or nothing to reduce system-wide prison disorder or disciplinary infractions,” Haney said in his testimony.
He and others cited studies indicating that long-term isolation can lead to mental illness, self-mutilation and a “disturbingly high” rate of suicide. Some studies indicate that at least half of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement.
Durbin, noting the replica of the isolation cell in the hearing room, asked Samuels: “Do you believe you could live in a box like that 23 hours a day – a person who goes in normal, and it wouldn’t have any negative impact on you?”
Samuels responded: “For any inmate, our objective is always to have the individual to freely be in the general population.” Graham pressed Samuels on why the Bureau of Prisons itself had not published a study of the mental-health impact of isolation and the extent to which inmates could appeal their assignment to solitary cells.
On the other hand, Durbin conceded that some prisoners say they prefer isolation. He recounted a visit to the Tamms prison during which he talked with maximum-security prisoners in fiberglass holding chambers – “think ‘Silence of the Lambs’ here,” the senator said. “Two [prisoners] volunteered that they felt this was the best thing for them,” Durbin said, noting that one prisoner said he had been sent to solitary confinement after he had killed another inmate in his shared cell.
Other witnesses also cited concerns about the impact of solitary confinement on public safety, with Haney arguing that “many prisoners are significantly handicapped when they attempt to make their eventual transition from prison back into the free world.” The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found in a 2006 report that the use of solitary confinement often increased acts of violence in prisons.
Durbin said he is looking into drafting legislation relating to solitary confinement policies. Among the options that might be considered would be provisions to reduce the number of prisoners held in solitary; give such prisoners more opportunity to challenge such confinement; or mandate improvements in mental-health screenings for inmates in solitary.
Citing the need to “reassess solitary confinement,” Durbin said: “We can no longer slam the cell door and turn our backs on the impact our policies have on the incarcerated and the safety of our nation.”