Transcript: Sen. Dick Durbin’s Q&A on solitary confinement before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on June 19, 2012

Partial transcript of Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Illinois) Q&A 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. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
A few years ago, there was a man sitting in that chair told the story of his sister, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison for possessing crack cocaine. He was from Illinois. He was raising his sister’s kids. And a few of us sitting here listening to his story said, “We’ve got to do something about this.” We did. Not as much as we should have but we did.

He didn’t know when he made his trip out here and sat at that table that talking into that microphone would change anything. But it did.

And you’ve got to feel the same way. There’s real value in your life that you’re here today telling this story on behalf of people who can’t speak for themselves. If you weren’t here, if your voice wasn’t heard, they would have no one. So your courage in telling this story, as tough as it must have been, ought to tell you about the value you have still in life – what you could still bring. So thank you. Thank you for that.

Anthony Graves, Founder of Anthony Believes:
Thank you, sir.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
…Professor Haney. You heard the testimony from the Bureau of Prisons about super max. 490 inmates. I tried to get on the record – in fairness to the bureau, I want them to give me the best information they can about screening before someone goes to super max. And once in super max how prisoners are monitored. How many professionals are there to do the job. And once someone is in that isolated circumstance, if they start exhibiting things that should be carefully monitored, who would do it.

You’ve been through this. You’ve been through federal prisons, state prisons, and others. What can you tell us about the conditions at our federal super max prison and how the issue of mental illness is handled there?

Dr. Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz:
Well, Senator, I had been through the ADX facility many times. I toured and inspected it on five or six different occasions and I’m familiar with many of the prisoners who are there. My understanding and analysis of that facility bears almost no relationship to what you’ve heard.

Unfortunately, the Federal Bureau of Prisons in my opinion does the same inadequate job as the states systems that we’ve been talking about do.

Those inadequacies extend to the evaluations of the people who go into the system in the first place. We put far too many people inside solitary confinement. People who should be categorically excluded – juveniles and the mentally ill, for example, they still show up in systems. And in the federal system, there are mentally ill prisoners, in my opinion, in the ADX – people with long mental health histories documented by the Bureau of Prisons itself.

We keep them in far too long. There are prisoners in solitary confinement for decades in this country.

In the system I know best – California – in the notorious Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit, there are about 500 men who have been in solitary confinement for 10 years or longer, nearly 100 who have been in solitary confinement for 20 years – essentially since the facility opened in 1989.

There are prisoners at the ADX who’ve been in solitary confinement – not necessarily ADX but elsewhere – for decades. We keep the far too long, and the Bureau of Prisons keeps them far too long as well.

We fail in terms of the kinds that we provide for people while they’re there. The conditions of confinement – they’re far too severe to serve any rational penological purpose. And then we do precious little in terms of providing transitional services for them when they’re released.

There are state systems around the country that have literally no transitional services so they are – they currently release people directly out of solitary confinement. Sometimes prisoners who’ve been there for many years, even decades, come directly out of that environment onto the streets of free society.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
It’s a mistake, I know, but I’m going to do it anyway to take anecdotal evidence and try to turn it into some profound revelation. But my trip to Tamms, my brief encounter with people facing this, and two very violent criminals who said they felt better now in this circumstance than they ever felt in their lives. So have you run into that phenomenon?

Dr. Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz:
Yes. And I think – first of all, I want to commend you for being one of the few Senators who knows directly about which we speak because you visit these places, and I think it’s hard to understand and grasp the reality of these institutions unless you go there. So I would endorse your earlier recommendation to your fellow Senators to visit these institutions, to talk to the people who are there.

But let me say a couple of things about the anecdote that you shared. One is that it is, I think, important to separate solitary confinement from being single-celled or single-housed. There are many prisoners who prefer to be alone in their cells but not alone in their cells under solitary confinement type of conditions. So many people who say they would prefer being in isolation are talking about isolation versus being double-celled or more or worse in very crowded prison conditions, which some people simply cannot psychologically tolerate.

In the old days before prison overcrowding became the norm in the United States, most prisoners were single-celled. Now, as I’m sure you know, most prisoners are double-celled or housed in crowded dormitories. There are some prisoners who simply cannot handle confinement in a cell not much bigger than the one that you’ve constructed in the courtroom that they have to share with another person. They simply can’t manage that psychologically. Now, unfortunately, they’re given the Hobson’s choice of either trying to tolerate that kind of enforced confinement with another person or committing a disciplinary infraction because that’s the only way that they can attain single cell housing by being placed in solitary confinement. So that’s one issue.

The other issue is that one of the very serious psychological consequences of placing people in solitary confinement for long periods of time is that it renders many people incapable of living anywhere else. In other words, they have to transform themselves – their habits of being, their ways of acting and thinking and relating to themselves as well as the world – premised around the assumption that they will not be around other human beings. And they actually get to a point where they find that it is frightening to be around other people. Many of the people who I work with who come out of solitary confinement and go either into main line prisons or come out to free society talk about being anxious, overcome, overwhelmed with anxiety when they’re around other human beings because they become accustomed to being isolated or being alone.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Let me ask you about double-celling because that’s what I found at Pekin – Pekin, Illinois correctional facility. And I asked them to take me to the segregated unit and they did. And we walked through it briefly and looked at the exercise area, which looked exactly like the cages that you showed in your photographs here. And I spoke to the guards afterwards – correctional officers – because I want to hear from their perspective too.

It’s their lives that are on the line here so we’ve got to be sensitive to that. And they said – one of them said with candor, “I don’t think this makes the situation any better. Some of them were stuck in the cell with somebody’s worse off than they are. It’s a threat to them sharing that cell.” So we kind of look at the prison overcrowding and putting two people in that kind of space is making the situation much worse. He wasn’t arguing the mental illness part of it; he was arguing institutional order as part of it. What has been your experience?

Dr. Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz:
Well, unfortunately, I think that prisoners who are living under the kinds of conditions that you just described have the worst of both worlds. They are simultaneously segregated from the normal prison population and the activities and programming that they might engage in – simultaneously isolated and overcrowded. They really can’t relate in any meaningful way to the people with whom they’re celled so they basically develop a kind of within cell isolation of their own, and it adds to the tensions and the tensions then can get acted out on each other. It creates hazards for the people who are forced to live that way. It creates hazards for the correctional officers who have to deal with prisoners who are living under those kinds of pressures.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
…Commissioner Epps, what a story. I was trying to remember where I’d heard the parts of the prison that was in a song somewhere. So it’s got kind of a legendary reputation of being a pretty tough place.

Christopher Epps, Commissioner of Mississippi Department of Corrections:
Yes, sir.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
And the state of Mississippi, which many folks up north may not look to for leadership but clearly is a leader when it comes to this issue, tell me how did you pull this off politically in a state that’s get tough, law and order? What you’re saying is don’t be so darn mean to these inmates. It ain’t helping things and it’s costing a lot of money. We can punish them as they should be punished. We can keep order in these prisons. We can save some money in the process and be a little more humane. How did you pull that off politically? Were you forced to it by court order or something?

Christopher Epps, Commissioner of Mississippi Department of Corrections:
Well, actually, we were being sued, Mr. Chairman. But we sat down with the ACLU. We sat down with our classification experts.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
I’m trying to get that together in my mind. [Audience laughter]

Christopher Epps, Commissioner of Mississippi Department of Corrections:
We did and what happened was, you know, we did what we felt was right. And today, I still feel like we made the right decision.

Mississippi is a very conservative state. They tough on crime. We tough on crime in Mississippi. And we was looking at the situation and we learned very quickly that what we was doing weren’t working.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
In what way was it not working? What do you say to the average person on the street, “Here’s why we’ve got to change it”?

Christopher Epps, Commissioner of Mississippi Department of Corrections:
Well, from May 2007 to August 2007, three homicides. Highly unusual. One suicide. In that period of time. That’s highly unusual. And then the prisoner violence. In addition to that, the assaults and violence was high on staff. Inmates was throwing urine, feces on staff. They was hurting themselves.

And so we had to look at the entire situation as it relates to what we were doing and we looked at it and we found that based on giving inmates privileges, based on allowing inmates – what we call progressive, step-down unit – you go from one level to another one with privileges, and also for the mentally ill group counseling and training all our staff to include correction officers and giving them incentives and getting their buy-in. And what came off of that was it started working and even the inmates told us, “Commissioner, we told you we could do it.” And so I feel real good about it, and we did that back in ’08 and here we are 4 years later and it’s still working.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
You’re President-elect of the American Correctional Association, and when you take over next year, what are you going take away from your experience in Mississippi in terms of talking to other folks who are running state correctional associations?

Christopher Epps, Commissioner of Mississippi Department of Corrections:
Well, one is no one here, I don’t believe, want an inmate living next to them that just got out of maximum security.

…I take to them that since we changed Unit 32 – and we closed it because we don’t need it anymore – violence reduced by 50%.

I take to them secondly that you’ve got to have accountability in place. When I started, you did one piece of paper called a detention notice that you just put on there the inmate…[incomprehensible audio] and they went to solitary confinement. That’s too easy. You’ve got to have a check and balance. Today, it has to come up to my desk.

In addition to that, we’ve got to make sure that we realize that 95% of all the inmates incarcerated in Mississippi is coming back to our neighborhood whether we like it or not. And so to me, as a Commissioner for the Mississippi Department of Corrections…that’s our responsibility and that’s on our report cards to make sure we do that.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Mr. Graves, we’ve talked about isolation and segregation and so forth. From your testimony, it sounds as if you were sharing your cell at least some part of the time. Is that a fact?

Anthony Graves, Founder of Anthony Believes:
No, sir. At one point, we were sort of like in a group setting. They moved us from one death row to another death row. We went from max to super max.

So we had a program that, you know, if you were a – it was an incentive program – that if you was a model prisoner, that you could actually be part of this work program and as a result you would get like more time out of your cell, you could play basketball and all that in a group setting.

And then there was an attempted escape and politicians got involved. See, ’cause the escapes, they were always there but the politicians got involved in this escape. And because the politicians got involved, they decided that “Well, we need to move them to a super max to show them we are really tough on crime”. And not only did they move us to a super max but they took all away everything we consider a privilege…You no longer had group rec[reation] where guys could go out and interact with one another, whether they’re talking about the law or they’re talking about their family, you know? Something that help them maintain their sanity.

That was taken from us. Everything that they could take from us that was called a privilege, they did. And they put us in super max, and they said, “You’re going to stay here 22 to 24 hours a day until you’re executed.” And therefore, they moved us to the super max and we stayed in there 22 to 23 hours a day, 24 hours a day from Friday ’til Monday.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
By yourself?

Anthony Graves, Founder of Anthony Believes:
By yourself.

You know, some guys go into solitary, they come back and they place them in their cell with some other guys. This was before we went to the super max. And I remember this one guy who was in solitary, when they brought him, he’d become so paranoid – they put him in a cell with someone – he woke up screaming, he had taken some cans, put them in his pillow sack and was beating his cellmate, because he started thinking that the guy was stealing his addresses off of his letters. Become schizophrenic, become paranoid. And he just woke this guy, beating him, screaming and hollering. And he was just taken out of solitary and put in a cell with another person, and he ended up almost taking that person’s life.
So this is the effect of solitary confinement. That guy was fine before he went there. Okay?

This whole notion of – I was listening to what the gentleman was talking about solitary confinement and the limited time that they spent. I spent 10 years, and I know guys who have spent 20 and 30 years, and they’re not in touch with the real world anymore. So for someone to sit up here and say that it does not have an effect or an impact on a person’s life, I say to that to that same person, “Go live that for 30 days”, and then I will listen to you. Because right now, you’re just basing everything on theory or you’re a scholar but you go live that for 30 days. And when you come back, I’ll listen to everything you have to say because I know what you’re going to say – “That’s hell. That is hell. And it’s driving me insane.” And we can sit here and we can talk back and forth about it intelligently.

But the bottom line is we, as American citizens, are driving other American citizens out of their minds, and we act like this is okay.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Can I ask you a personal question?

Anthony Graves, Founder of Anthony Believes:
Yes, sir.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
You told us so much about what you’ve been through. Was there anything that kept you going spiritually through this?

Anthony Graves, Founder of Anthony Believes:
Yes. I kept my eyes on God. Because I said to myself, I know who I am. I’m not going to let a label define me. I’m innocent. I’m a son. I’m a father. And I’m a brother. And what they can’t take from me, I’m not going to give to them. They couldn’t take my dignity and I refuse to give it to them. That’s what kept me sane. My defiance. And my naivete. Because I was naive in thinking that they just couldn’t execute a man who didn’t do something.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Good for you. Thank you.

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