Durbin Questions Witnesses During Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Eliminating the Abuse of Solitary Confinement

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today questioned witnesses during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “Legacy of Harm: Eliminating the Abuse of Solitary Confinement.”  The hearing examined the frequent abuse of solitary confinement in federal custody, including members of vulnerable populations and those suffering from mental illness.

Durbin first questioned Gretta Goodwin, the Director of Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), about GAO’s February report on solitary confinement in BOP which found that BOP has not fully implemented 54 of the 87 recommendations from two prior studies on improving restrictive housing practices.

“To think individuals are incarcerated and isolated for months, if not years, at a time is unthinkable.  Why is it [that] we have strong reactions against physical cruelty, [but] we don't have strong reaction against mental cruelty?  [Director] Goodwin, is there any recommendation you would like to point out of the 87 made to the Bureau of Prisons you think would make a difference?” Durbin asked.  

Director Goodwin responded that GAO is working closely with BOP to see how they plan to meet the recommendations.  She continued to say, “there are some [recommendations] that speak to alternatives to solitary confinement.”

Durbin then asked Ms. Nicole Davis, the Executive Director of Talk2Me Foundation, who was incarcerated for 13.5 years in federal prison at FCI Danbury in Connecticut, if she had any visitation, including counselors during her time in solitary confinement.  Ms. Davis responded that she did not have any visitation and continued to say, “no one came back there to check on me.”

“Did you ask for any counseling—medical counseling?” Durbin asked.

Ms. Davis responded that no one answered her requests forcounseling while incarcerated, though she did seek counseling once she was released. 

Durbin then asked Dr. Katherine Peeler, a Harvard Medical School professor, and a medical expert with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), about reforms in North Dakota to address solitary confinement, where the use of solitary confinement has been drastically reduced.

Durbin concluded, “I cannot understand how states are showing such leadership in this area and we are failing so badly.  I’m going to call on [BOP] Director Peters to explain why she has not implemented the GAO recommendations and hold her accountable for that.”

Video of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here for TV Stations.

The hearing follows the introduction of two bills—the Solitary Confinement Reform Act and the Restricting Solitary Confinement in Immigration Detention Actby Durbin on Monday, which would limit the use of solitary confinement by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), U.S. Marshals Service, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

In the last five years alone, ICE has placed people in solitary confinement over 14,000 times, with an average duration of 27 days. In 2023, of those detained in solitary in an ICE facility, an estimated 56 percent had mental health conditions—up from 35 percent in 2019. 

The hearing continues Chair Durbin and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s work to limit solitary confinement. In 2012, Durbin held the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement as Chair of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. Following that hearing, BOP took steps to reduce its use of solitary confinement. By Durbin’s second hearing on the topic in 2014, the percentage of individuals held in solitary confinement had declined from 7.7 percent to 6.4 percent of the total BOP population.

In 2016, President Obama announced he would ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal system and accept recommendations from a comprehensive Justice Department (DOJ) report to ensure that the practice would “be used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints.” Unfortunately, the Obama-era declines in solitary confinement were reversed under the Trump Administration. Despite President Biden’s 2022 executive order that ordered the Attorney General to implement DOJ’s 2016 report and recommendations, there has been no significant decrease in BOP’s restricting housing population. The percentage of individuals held in solitary confinement is approximately eight percent of the total BOP population as of April 2024.

Earlier this month, Durbin and a group of Senate Democrats urged Department of Homeland Security Secretary (DHS) Alejandro Mayorkas and ICE Acting Director Patrick Lechleitner to phase out the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention. The letter noted that the number of individuals in solitary confinement in ICE detention has increased in recent years, and today, an estimated 56 percent of individuals in ICE’s solitary confinement have mental health conditions—up from 35 percent in 2019.  Earlier this year, Durbin issued a sharp rebuke of BOP’s failure to eliminate the overuse of solitary confinement.