Durbin: Time to End Use of Solitary Confinement for Juveniles, Pregnant Women, and those with Serious Mental Illness

Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) called for an end to the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women and those with serious and persistent mental illness during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. Durbin, who chaired the hearing, urged further reform of the controversial detention practice so the United States can protect human rights, improve public safety, and be more fiscally responsible.


“Thirty-five percent of juveniles in custody report being held in solitary for some amount time. The mental health effects of even short periods of isolation – including depression and risk of suicide – are heightened in youth,” Durbin said at today’s hearing. “Today, 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, except in those exceptional circumstances where public safety requires it.”


Durbin’s call for the end of the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women and those with serious and persistent mental illness comes the week after New York State declared it would end related practices for vulnerable prisoners.


Witnesses at today’s hearing included Charles E. Samuels, Jr., Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; Craig DeRoche, President of the Justice Fellowship; Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black;” Marc Levin, Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation; Rick Raemisch, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections; and Damon Thibodeaux, who was held in solitary confinement for 15 years before his exoneration and release from prison. Copies of witness testimony and Senator Durbin’s opening statement are attached.


The United States has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world – with five percent of the world’s population, we have close to 25 percent of its prisoners.  African Americans and Hispanic Americans are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites.  And the United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation. 


In 2012, Durbin chaired the first hearing examining the human rights issues surrounding the use of solitary confinement. That hearing discussed the dramatic increase of the use of solitary that began in the 1980’s; the serious fiscal impact of solitary confinement; and the human impact of holding tens of thousands of men, women and children in small windowless cells for 23 hours a day.


Durbin’s first hearing also looked at how the overuse of solitary can present a serious threat to public safety, including an increase of violence inside and outside of prison.  The reality is that the vast majority of prisoners held in isolation will be released someday.  The damaging impact of their time in solitary – or their release directly from solitary – can make them a danger to themselves and their neighbors. More information, including witness testimony and video of the 2012 hearing, can be found here.