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Solitary confinement: 'A human rights issue we can't ignore'

The prevalence of solitary confinement in the American judiciary system is a "human rights issue we can't ignore," said Sen. Dick Durbin.
Georgia Valentine hangs a poster calling for reform in the use of solitary confinement in California prisons, Oct. 9, 2013.
Georgia Valentine hangs a poster calling for reform in the use of solitary confinement in California prisons, Oct. 9, 2013.

The prevalence of solitary confinement in the American judiciary system is a "human rights issue we can't ignore," said Sen. Dick Durbin at a Senate subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

Of the 2.3 million Americans who are incarcerated, around 80,000 people live in a form of restricted confinement on any given day, according to the advocacy group Solitary Watch. It costs $75,000 a year on average to house an inmate in solitary confinement – roughly three times more than it costs to house a prisoner in a standard unit. The U.S. leads democratic nations in its use of solitary confinement and has the highest per-capita rate of incarceration worldwide.

The typical conditions in solitary are severe: 23 hours in a small, usually windowless cell, with one hour of outdoor recreation in what one former inmate on Tuesday likened to a “caged dog-run.” Food is delivered on a tray through a slot in the door.

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held its second-ever hearing on solitary confinement Tuesday. Witnesses included former inmate Damon Thibodeaux, who was exonerated thanks in part to DNA evidence after serving nearly 15 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana, and Piper Kerman, author of the book "Orange is the New Black."

Thibodeaux described his life in an 8-by-10 foot cell with a sink, toilet, desk and chair, and a bunk with a thin mattress. “These four walls are your life,” he said in written remarks. “Being in that environment for 23 hours a day will slowly kill you.”

Thibodeaux said that early on in his incarceration, he thought of ceding his legal rights and allowing the state to execute him. He reconsidered at the urging of his lawyer and friend.

“For 15 years, I watched the state slowly execute many of my fellow inmates before it could legally put the needle into their arms,” Thibodeaux said in written testimony. “It’s torture, pure and simple, no matter what else we want to call it.”

Kerman, who turned a memoir about her 13-month incarceration in Danbury, Conn. into the popular Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," testified about the treatment of prisoners in solitary confinement, writing in prepared remarks that it “evoke[s] terror and a conviction to keep your head down and report nothing that you see, hear or experience for fear that you may be locked down in isolation.” She shared a “cautionary tale” relayed to her by another inmate about a woman who was put in solitary confinement after accusing a guard of sexually assaulting her.

Prison guards and officials have testified that solitary confinement is necessary to maintain order and protect staff.

"If they see that we will lower our standards, we will not hold individuals accountable, it puts our staff at risk," Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Charles E. Samuels, Jr. said during the hearing, according to NPR. "It puts other prisoners at risk."

Durbin is pushing for prison reform around juveniles, pregnant women, and people with mental health issues. He cited a Justice Department study in which 35% of juveniles reported being held in solitary confinement for some time, saying that even small amounts of the practice can result in depression and risk of suicide.  

A leader in federal reform efforts himself, Durbin hailed recent efforts on the state level to limit the practice.

New York announced changes last week spurred by a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, making it the largest state to outlaw solitary confinement as a discipline for people under the age of 18. (Sixteen and 17-year-olds can be tried as adults, leading to periods of time in solitary confinement.) The reforms also ban solitary confinement for pregnant women and limits the duration to 30 days for people with developmental disabilities.

The Texas state legislature last year approved an independent commission to review the use of solitary confinement in the state.

Durbin applauded his home state of Illinois for closing its only supermax prison last year, according to prepared remarks. Colorado, Mississippi, Maine and Washington are also exploring reform.