Transcript: Dr. Craig Haney’s testimony on solitary confinement before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on June 19, 2012

Partial transcript of testimony of Dr. Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on solitary confinement. The hearing on “Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences” was held before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights on June 19, 2012:

Sen. Durbin, thank you for the opportunity to participate in this historic hearing.

I am someone who has probably spent almost as much time inside our nation’s prisons and jails over the last 30 years as I have inside the classroom at my beautiful home university. This is including inspecting dozens of solitary confinement units across the country, and interviewing…many hundreds of men and women who are confined in their cells on average 23 hours a day, many for years, even decades.

I’ve brought some photographs to illustrate what solitary confinement looks like and how it is practiced now here in the United States…

Many isolation prisons are stark, foreboding structures. The cell blocks are typically small and sometimes overseen by armed correctional officers.

The cells themselves are often scarcely larger than the size of a king-sized bed. Prisoners thus eat, sleep, and defecate each day in areas just a few feet apart from one another.

It is hard to describe in words what such a small space begins to look like, feel like, and smell like when someone is required to live virtually their entire life in it.

Because contact visit is prohibited in solitary confinement, prisoners never touch another human being with affection. Their only regular so-called interactions occur when correctional officers place food trays on the slots of their doors – the same slots where prisoners are first handcuffed anytime their cell doors are opened.

Indeed, the only time they are physically touched is when being placed in mechanical restraints – leg irons, belly chains, and the like. They’re escorted by no fewer than two and sometimes as many as five correctional officers anytime they’re taken out of their unit.

Their one-hour a day outside of their cells is termed “yard time” but it occurs in a place that barely resembles a yard. It consists instead of an exercise pen or cage or a concrete enclosed area that prevents any view of the outside world.

There is a disturbingly high concentration of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement, as you’ve heard. If they are fortunate enough to be in a unit that provides them with treatment, they are usually unfortunate enough to receive it in a treatment cage or in several of them in a unique form of group therapy.

As you mentioned earlier, Senator, your colleague Sen. McCain has characterized solitary confinement as an awful thing, correctly noting that “it crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

I agree and know that for some prisoners less resilient than he, solitary confinement precipitates a descent into madness. Some isolated prisoners smear themselves with feces, sit catatonic in puddles of their own urine, or shriek wildly and bang their fists or heads against the walls that contain them.

In some cases, the reactions are more tragic and bizarre, including grotesque forms of self-harm and mutilation. Prisoners have amputated parts of their own bodies or inserted tubes and other objects into their penises in acts that unfortunately can be met with an institutional matter-of-factness that is equally disturbing.

Less extreme and much more common reactions include panic attacks, hyper-vigilance, paranoia, cognitive dysfunction, hopelessness and depression, and anger and rage.

Although solitary confinement certainly does not drive everyone who experiences it crazy, we do know that time spent in these places is often more than merely painful, moving beyond suffering to placing prisoners at grave risk of psychological harm.

In addition, isolated prisoners frequently develop forms of social pathology, ways of beings that are functional to surviving the asocial world of solitary confinement, but profoundly dysfunctional when these prisoners are returned to a main line prison or released – as most of them are – into the free world where they now must interact effectively with others or risk permanent marginalization.

Indeed, this enforced asociality and the virtually total lack of training or meaningful programming that isolated prisoners typically receive can significantly impede their post prison adjustment, raising important concerns about the effect of solitary confinement on recidivism and public safety.

As prison populations continue to gradually decline in the United States and the nation’s correctional system re-dedicates itself to program-oriented approaches designed to produce positive prisoner change, our use of solitary confinement should be radically re-thought and restricted and the resources now expended on it re-directed to more humane, cost-effective, and productive strategies of prison management.

It is my sincere hope that this committee will help lead the way.


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