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Second Senate Hearings on Solitary Confinement: Possible impact and failure

Juan mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture speaking at Press Conference prior to Senate solitary confinement hearings Photo: NRCAT

Second Senate Hearings on Solitary Confinement: Possible impact and failure

 The second hearing on solitary confinement by the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences was held to a packed room of families, former prisoners, activists, faith leaders and individuals and groups working on issues of incarceration and solitary confinement. The hearings had to be moved to a bigger room to accommodate those wishing to attend. One hundred and thirty written testimonies were submitted from around the country including ones from the American Friends Service Committee. See our website at

 Prior to the hearings the ACLU and NRCAT (National Religious Campaign Against Torture) held a well-attended press conference at which a number of advocates spoke about the damaging impact of solitary. Amy Fettig, Senior Staff Counsel, ACLU’s National Prison Project called for Federal oversight with more monitoring and accountability, as well as some national standards for use of solitary.

The hearings were chaired by Senator Dick Durbin, Chair of the Judiciary Committee.

”Today I am calling for all federal and state facilities to end the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women, and people with serious and persistent mental illness, except in the rarest of circumstances,” Durbin stated.

That was very much the focus of the day. Only one of the panelists spoke to the impact of long term solitary confinement on all prisoners.

 Damon Thibodeaux, who spent 15 years on death row in Louisiana’s Angola prison before being exonerated, spoke of his own experience and addressed the use of solitary as torture.

I can see no reason to subject anyone to this type of existence, no matter how certain we are that they are guilty of a horrible crime, and are among the worst of the worst … I do not condone what those who have killed and committed other serious offenses have done, but I also don’t condone what we do to them when we put them in solitary for years on end and treat them as subhuman. We are better than that. As a civilized society, we should be better than that. I would like to believe that the vast majority of the people in the United States would be appalled if they knew what we are doing to inmates in solitary confinement and understood that we are torturing them, for reasons that have little, if anything, to do with protecting other inmates or prison guards from them.

  The hearings themselves were in two parts. Charles E. Samuel, Jr., Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons was questioned by the Senators on the condition of inmates in solitary confinement in Federal prisons. He mainly addressed the issue of juvenile, women and the mentally ill. There was no challenge to “Samuels’ contention that individuals in long-term isolation receive “intensive treatment” and “adequate time out of their cells for recreational time.” It was also interesting that the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons didn’t know the size of the cells for those in solitary. He spoke of them being 6’x 4’ which is barely the size of a bed. In reality they are 8’ by 11’, still alarmingly small, mostly without windows and in many cases with the lights on 24 hours a day..

 The second group of speakers was handpicked by the Senate panel and consisted of a combination of experts on solitary and people formerly incarcerated. One of the interesting speakers was Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections Rick Raemisch who recently took over the Colorado Department of Corrections. One of his first moves was to spend 22 hours in one of the solitary confinement cells. He spoke about the experience which shook him considerably and he is determined to reduce the number of people in solitary in Colorado.

 The hearings help to highlighting the issue of solitary and the very fact that they are happening is a reflection of the growing awareness of the issue in our society. However, there is a real danger in focusing on just parts of the impacted population and not the whole; just as it is important to remember that while we are trying to abolish the use of solitary confinement the entire prison system is corrupt and needs to be abolished.