Transcript: Sen. Dick Durbin’s opening remarks on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee’s hearing on solitary confinement – June 19, 2012

Partial transcript of opening remarks by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) 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:

This hearing is entitled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences.”

…America has led the fight for human rights throughout the world. This subcommittee has tried to play some part in that, holding the first congressional hearings on issues like rape as a weapon of war and passing legislations like the Genocide Accountability Act.

But we also have an obligation to look in the mirror, to look at our own human rights record.

Today, in the United States, more than 2.3 million people are in prison. This is by far the highest per capita rate of prisoners in the world.

African Americans are incarcerated at nearly 6 times the rate of white Americans, Hispanics nearly twice as frequently.

These numbers translate into human rights questions, challenges, and issues we can’t ignore.

I held a hearing on mental illness in prison in 2009. I’ve authored the Fair Sentencing Act, which finally reduced dramatically the disparity between crack and pot and cocaine, though I will tell you I believe it should be a strict one-to-one. We clearly have made improvement, but there’s more to be done.

We’re here today to consider another critical issue: What do America’s prisons say about our nation and its values? What does it say about the number of people we have in prison? What does it say when we consider how we treat the people who are in prison?

This is the first ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement. It’s called many different things: super max, segregation, isolation, among other names.

At this point, I’m going to show a brief video clip, which is compelling.


17-year-old James Stewart was held in solitary confinement in an adult prison for 2 months. His sister Nicole Miera is here. She joins us. Nicole, thank you for sharing your brother’s story.

Unfortunately, Jimmy Stewart’s story is not – is all too common. 50% of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement.

Jimmy was locked up in a cell – like the one to my left. This [referring to cell model] was prepared as part of a trial. It is a replica of a solitary confinement cell, and it was sent to us to be here at the hearing. I stepped inside briefly before the hearing started, but there’s no way a brief visit there could give you any feeling for what it must be like to spend extended periods of time – hours, days, weeks, months, years – in that confining space for 23-hours a day.

In 1995, a federal district court described similar cells at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison as follows: “The cells are windowless. The walls are white concrete. The overall effect is one of stark sterility and unremitting monotony. Inmates can spend years without ever seeing any aspect of the outside world, except for a small patch of sky.”

One inmate fairly described it as being like a space capsule where one is shot into space and left in its isolation. Imagine 23 hours a day in one of those cells with little if any human contact.

The United States holds far more prisoners in segregation or solitary confinement than any other democratic nation on Earth. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2005, U.S. prisons held 81,622 people in some type of restricted housing.

In my home state of Illinois, 56% of the prison population has spent time in segregation.

If I had one request to my colleagues on this Judiciary Committee, it is to visit a prison. Do it frequently. See what it’s like. I’ve done it. Most recently in Pekin at the federal facility. But I’ve been to Tamms, which is our maximum confinement facility in the state of Illinois. It is an eye-opener to understand what it means when you start talking about the sentencing aspects of American’s criminal justice system.

We don’t always use solitary confinement at such high rate, but in the 1980s, things started changing. We began creating expensive super max prisons designed to hold people in isolation on a massive scale.

These super maxes, just like the crack cocaine sentencing laws, were part of a tough on crime policy that many of us thought made sense at the time.

But we now know that solitary confinement isn’t just used for the worst of the worst. Instead, we’re seeing an alarming increase in isolation for those who don’t really need to be there and for many, many vulnerable groups like immigrants, children, LGBT inmates – supposedly there for their own protection.

That’s why I’ve advocated for a change in the Justice Department’s prison rape standards to help ensure sexual assault victims are only placed in solitary when absolutely necessary.

We’ve heard from Nicole Miera about the tragic consequences of locking up children in isolation. That’s why the American Academy of Child and Adolescence Psychiatry has called for a ban on solitary confinement for all children under the age of 18. That ban might have saved her brother’s life.

In January, I visited an immigration detention center in deep southern Illinois and saw segregation units like those found at many county jails. I might remind you the people being held there have not been convicted of any crime.

Even for adults convicted of serious crime, experts say far too many are in solitary confinement.

Some are already seriously mentally ill before they’re confined. They require extensive monitoring and treatment – the exact opposite of isolation.

Others who may not have had any psychological problems before isolation can driven into psychosis or a suicidal state.

And there’s also a more basic question of how prisons treat people in solitary. Their conditions of confinement, I think we all agree, need to meet basic standards of decency.

As far back as 1890 – the 19th century – the Supreme Court recognized the risk of solitary, describing the isolated inmates of one prison with the following words: “A considerable number of prisoners fell, even after a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition from which it was next to impossible to arouse them. Others became violently insane. Others still committed suicide.” That was written in 1890.

And our colleague and former POW [prisoner of war], Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has lived it said, “It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any form of mistreatment.”

This is also a public safety issue. As the Bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in American Prisons found, increasing use of high-security segregation is counter-productive, often causing violence inside facilities, contributing to recidivism after release.

We have a responsibility, I will acknowledge, to protect prison guards – men and women who put their lives on the line to protect all of us. But we also must have a clear-eyed view of the impact of isolation on the vast majority of prisoners who will one day be released.

Solitary confinement also is extremely costly. At Tamms, which I mentioned earlier, in Illinois – our only super max prison – it has by far the highest per prisoner cost of any Illinois prison: $61,522 a year in this last fiscal year for a super max prisoner compared to $22,000 for other prisoners.

A number of states are starting to reassess solitary confinement. We’ll hear about some things today which are eye-opening. They implemented reforms and reduced the use of solitary, lowering prison violence and recidivism rate and saving millions of dollars.

As a result of the work we’ve done preparing for this first of its kind hearing, I’m working on legislation to encourage reforms in the use of solitary confinement. We can no longer slam the cell door and turn our backs on the impact our policies have on those incarcerated and the safety of our nation.

I also want to note that we invited the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department to participate but they declined. We’ll be following up with them to make them aware of the results of today’s hearing and to ensure they’re enforcing the federal civil rights laws that protect prisoners held in our prisons across America.


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One Comment on “Transcript: Sen. Dick Durbin’s opening remarks on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee’s hearing on solitary confinement – June 19, 2012

  1. Pingback: Election 2014: Sen. Dick Durbin's voting records & positions on key issues | What The Folly?!

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