Transcript: Sen. Al Franken’s Q&A with Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuel’s testimony on solitary confinement before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on June 19, 2012

Partial transcript of Sen. Al Franken’s (D-Minnesota) Q&A with Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 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. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
…I understand everything you’ve been saying – I really do – in response to the Chairman’s question. I guess what he was driving at was – well, let me ask you this first: What percentage of those who’ve been in solitary confinement end up being released ultimately? You said 95% of all federal prisoners end up being released. What percentage of people who’ve been in solitary confinement end up being released?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
The percentage is going to vary because with solitary confinement, which we do view as temporary housing, that many of these individuals are going to be released and phased back into general population. So I would not be able to give you a specific percentage for an overall turn for inmates who’ve been placed in restricted housing because it varies.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
Okay, because it seems to me like the question the Chairman was asking was does this – what effect does this have on the mental health of people who are placed in solitary and if they are released do they present more of a danger to society for having been in solitary? But I don’t think I’ll get a good or a definitive answer for that.

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
If I may, I will respond in that – the most recent and most rigorous study that has been done was completed by the Colorado Department of Corrections as recently as 2009. With their study, they identified that no negative effect on individuals in restricted housing has occurred.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
That no negative effect?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Yes.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
Okay. Hmm. Mr. [Pat] Nolan made some policy recommendations in his written testimony. I’d like to hear your views on three of those.

First, Mr. Nolan suggested that solitary confinement be limited to cases of clear danger or violence that cannot be controlled in other settings. That’s first.

Second, he says that each inmate should be screened for mental illnesses before being placed in solitary confinement and that they should be evaluated periodically by psychiatrist who’s independent from the corrections department.

And third, he says that inmates should have the opportunity to challenge decisions that sent them into solitary confinement and that they should have a chance to notify their families that they’re being placed in solitary confinement.

Are these policies that the bureau already has in place? And if not, would consider implementing them?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
I’ll start with the first comment as far as the placement of individuals who pose a clear danger to the correctional environment, and I believe that that is what we’re doing. As I stated, if you look at our population of 218,000 inmates and we have 7% at any given time were placed in restricted housing and it is temporary in many cases.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
What percent?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
7%.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
What was that very small percentage that you talked about just a few minutes ago?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
That’s at the ADX, which is our most restricted housing for the Bureau of Prisons. We have less than one-third of 1% of individuals housed, so 490 inmates throughout the country, who have been placed in that status out of a population 218,000.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
7% at any one time is in solitary?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
This 7% – at any given time throughout the Bureau of Prisons we have individuals who could be placed in SHU which is our special housing unit and our special management unit.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
Which is solitary confinement.

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Yes.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
…And is that limited to cases of clear danger or violence that cannot be controlled in other settings?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Yes.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
Okay. So that’s in place.

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Yes.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
He secondly said that each inmate should be screened for mental illnesses before being placed in solitary confinement and that they should be evaluated periodically by a psychiatrist who’s independent from the corrections department. Is that in place?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Yes. Within our system, we have well over 1,300 mental health staff that work for the Bureau of Prisons. And when inmates are placed in restricted conditions for confinement, an assessment is conducted by the staff in conjunction with the correctional services staff in other key departments within the Bureau of Prisons. So there’s an evaluation period to ensure that these inmates are being monitored carefully.

If any inmate goes beyond the 30 day period, they are also provided an in-person assessment by a psychologist within the bureau. At every facility within the Bureau of Prisons, we have a doctoral level chief psychologist who oversees these types of issues within the institution because we believe that the mental health management and the well-being of these individuals should be something that is routine and ongoing.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
Okay. Maybe I didn’t say it clearly. It says it should be evaluated periodically by a psychiatrist who’s independent from the corrections department. It seems that what you’re saying is – and I’m sure that you’re doing it as well as you can and for the reasons that you’re doing it – but that’s not the case right now that they’re not evaluated by someone who’s independent of the agency right?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
I would say that the majority of the inmates in restricted housing are not being evaluated by an external mental health professional. However, when needed, we utilize those resources to assist our staff.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
Okay, well, all I’m saying is that his recommendation is that they be screened periodically by someone independent from the corrections. So that isn’t in place.

Third, he says that inmates should have the opportunity to challenge decisions that sent them into solitary confinement, that they should have a chance to notify their families that they are being placed in solitary confinement. Is that the policy now?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Yes, when inmates are placed in restricted confinement, they’re given due process and an opportunity to challenge their placement in restricted confinement and that is in place.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
And are they allowed to notify their families?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
The individuals are given an opportunity to make a phone call to their family members and they’re also provided access mail as well as participate in visits.

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