Former prisoners spoke about the effects of solitary confinement Tuesday, in a congressional hearing aimed at banning the treatment for some inmates. The federal push to reduce solitary confinement is being led by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who calls it "a human rights issue we can't ignore."
Inmates who are held in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day in small windowless cells, receiving their food on trays that are pushed through a slot in the cell's door.
The use of solitary confinement is also extremely expensive and counterproductive, according to a news release from the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights,which Durbin leads.
NPR Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson, who attended today's hearing, says that Durbin's calls for change, which is aimed only at the rules governing juveniles, pregnant women and the mentally ill, come as some states have already begun to cut the use of solitary confinement.
"There have been efforts by states to save a lot of money and reduce violence in prisons," Carrie says. "And also, a critical mass of advocacy by the ACLU and some researchers," she says, along with bipartisan interest in the issue.
"One fact that came out today was that it costs about $78,000 a year to house someone in the federal prison system in solitary," Carrie says. "That's three times as much as it costs to put somebody in a regular prison unit."
Carrie says that states "have been leading the way" in curbing solitary confinement.
New York recently announced a broad revamping of its prison poliicies last week, for instance, spurred by a federal lawsuit in which critics said " thousands of inmates — some of them pregnant or mentally ill — are being held for months and even years in isolation, often for minor infractions," as NPR's Brian Mann reported.
Mississippi, Maine, and Texas have also taken up the issue. Today, Durbin and his allies urged more states and the federal government to ban the use of solitary confinement.
"The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world," Durbin said ahead of the session. "The dramatic expansion of the use of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can't ignore."
Carrie calls the testimony that was given by former prisoners on Capitol Hill today "incredible."
Particularly moving were the words of former inmate Damon Thibodeaux, who was exonerated after serving nearly 15 years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison.
"Humans cannot survive without food and water," Thibodeaux told the senators. "They can't survive without sleep. But they also can't survive without hope."
"Years on end in solitary, particularly on death row, will drain that hope from anyone. Because in solitary there's nothing to live for," he said.
"After realizing what my existence would be like for years on end, until I was either executed or exonerated, I was on the verge of committing what was basically suicide by state," Thibodeaux said, "by voluntarily giving up my legal rights and allowing the state to carry out the sentence of death."
He asked, "What does it say about us as a nation that even before the law allows the state to execute a person, we're willing to let it kill them bit by bit and day by day, by subjecting them to solitary confinement?"
Interest in today's hearing was so intense that its location was shifted to a new venue on the Hill. The witness list included Piper Kerman, author of the memoir Orange Is the New Black, based on her own experience in prison.
Kerman said that for women in prison, the risk of solitary confinement can make them reluctant to speak up about rape and other abuses, for fear of possible retribution.
"The terrible threat of isolation makes women afraid to report abuse, and serves as a powerful disincentive to ask for help or justice," she said.
The proposed changes are meeting with resistance from prison officials and guards, whose union president, Eric Young, said today that "isolation or segregation is a vital tool to prevent anarchy in prisons," Carrie says.
And the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Charles E. Samuels, Jr., said that there are inmates, such as gang leaders, who must be separated from the rest of the prison population.
"If they see that we will lower our standards, we will not hold individuals accountable, it puts our staff at risk," he said. "It puts other prisoners at risk."
The Senate panel released information today stating that of the more than 2.3 million people who are in America's jails and prisons, "the United States held over 80,000 people in some kind of restricted detention."
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
Here's one distinction the United States holds: This nation keeps more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic country.
MONTAGNE: Those inmates live for 23 hours a day in tiny, windowless cells. Their food trays are pushed through a metal slot in the door. Prison officials defend the practice.
GREENE: But calls for reform are now growing louder. Many people say solitary confinement has to be reined in, at least when it comes to prisoners who are underage, pregnant or mentally ill.
NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: So many people showed up for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on solitary confinement that lawmakers had to find a bigger room to handle the crowd.
What they heard were these searing words from Damon Thibodeaux.
DAMON THIBODEAUX: Years on end in solitary, particularly on death row, will drain that hope from anyone, because in solitary, there's nothing to live for.
JOHNSON: Before he was exonerated of rape and murder, Thibodeaux spent 15 years in isolation on death row in the Louisiana State Prison, until he reached a breaking point.
THIBODEAUX: After realizing what my existence would be like for years on end, until I was either executed or exonerated, I was on the verge of committing what was basically suicide by state, by voluntarily giving up my legal rights and allowing the state to carry out the sentence of death.
JOHNSON: Ultimately, a lawyer persuaded him to change his mind. Now Thibodeaux is using his story to try to help others.
THIBODEAUX: What does it say about us as a nation that even before the law allows the state to execute a person, we're willing to let it kill them bit by bit and day by day by subjecting them to solitary confinement?
JOHNSON: A growing body of research says most inmates who commit suicide behind bars endure prolonged isolation before they take their own lives.
SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: These are human rights issues that we cannot ignore.
JOHNSON: Illinois Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, who led the Senate hearing, delivered a message to corrections officials around the country.
DURBIN: I'm calling for all federal and state facilities to end the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women and individuals with serious and persistent mental illness.
JOHNSON: States from Maine to Mississippi to Texas have already cut the number of inmates who live in prolonged isolation, reducing violence behind bars and saving millions of dollars. It costs three times as much to house a prisoner in solitary as in the general population.
But Charles Samuels, the leader of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, says that some inmates - including violent gang members - pose real threats and need to be isolated. Last year, two federal corrections officials died at the hands of dangerous prisoners, and others, Samuels says, are watching.
CHARLES SAMUELS: If they see that we will lower our standards, we will not hold individuals accountable, it puts our staff at risk. It puts other inmates at risk.
JOHNSON: But for the vast majority of inmates, prison leaders use solitary confinement as a punishment or to make their own lives easier.
Rick Raemisch runs the Corrections Department in Colorado.
RICK RAEMISCH: Administrative segregation, except for the extremely dangerous, is used to allow an institution to run more efficiently. It suspends the problem at best, but multiplies it at its worst.
JOHNSON: That's because at least 95 percent of those inmates eventually get out of prison and return to communities, including one who shot and killed Raemisch's predecessor in Colorado last year, not long after leaving solitary confinement.
For women behind bars, solitary can be a means of control or retribution. Piper Kerman, author of the prison memoir "Orange Is the New Black," says inmates who've been raped by guards often think twice before speaking out, lest they be thrown in solitary.
PIPER KERMAN: The terrible threat of isolation makes women afraid to report abuse, and serves as a powerful disincentive to ask for help or justice.
JOHNSON: Solitary confinement, Kerman says, is a tool of control that's neither humane nor effective.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.