Durbin Chairs First-Ever Congressional Hearing on Solitary Confinement

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) chaired a hearing today on the issue of solitary confinement in the nation’s prisons, jails and detention centers. The hearing, held before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, focused on the human rights, fiscal and public safety consequences of solitary confinement.

“The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world,” Durbin said. “The dramatic expansion of the use of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can’t ignore. We can no longer slam the cell door and turn our backs on the impact our policies have on the mental state of the incarcerated and ultimately on the safety of our nation.”

During the last several decades, the United States has witnessed an explosion in the use of solitary confinement for federal, state, and local prisoners and detainees. Today, more than 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States. This is – by far – the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world.

Solitary confinement - also called supermax housing, segregation and isolation – is designed to separate inmates from each other and isolate them for a variety of reasons. Originally used to segregate the most violent prisoners in the nation’s supermax prisons, the practice is increasingly being used and for vulnerable groups like immigrants, children and LGBT inmates – supposedly for their own protection. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States held over 80,000 people in some kind of restricted detention. In Illinois, 56% of inmates have spent some time in segregated housing.

Prisoners in isolation are often confined to small cells without windows, with little to no access to the outside world. Inmates are confined to these cells for up to 23 hours a day.  Such extreme isolation can have serious psychological effects on inmates and – as Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz testified to the Subcommittee – can lead to mental illness, self-mutilation and a “disturbingly high” rate of suicide. According to several state and national studies, at least half of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement. Photographs of a typical solitary cell can be found here.

In addition to the impact solitary confinement has on inmates, there are also public safety and fiscal concerns with the practice. The bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found that the use of solitary confinement often increased acts of violence in prions. Further, it is extremely costly to house a prisoner in solitary confinement. In Tamms, Illinois’ only supermax prison, it costs more than $60,000 a year to house a prisoner in solitary confinement compared to an average of $22,000 for inmates in other prisons.

“All of these issues lead to the obvious conclusion: we need to reassess solitary confinement and honestly reform policies which do not make us safer,” Durbin said.

A panel of experts, including a former exonerated inmate who spent 18 years incarcerated and in solitary confinement, testified at today’s hearing. The witnesses were: Charles Samuels, Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons; Stuart M. Andrews Jr., Partner, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP; Christopher Epps, Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections; Anthony Graves, Founder, Anthony Believes; and Dr. Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz. Copies of their testimony and Senator Durbin’s opening remarks are attached.

Video of today’s hearing can be found at www.judiciary.senate.gov. This was the second hearing Senator Durbin has chaired focusing on human rights issues in US prisons. The first looked at the treatment of mentally ill inmates in US prisons. More information about that hearing can be found here.