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

Partial transcript of Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Illinois) 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. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
…I want to thank you. As Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons since Dec. 21, 2011, the eighth director since the bureau’s establishment, you oversee all the Bureau of Prisons institutions and facilities. I thank you for being here…

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
So Mr. Samuels, let me ask you a couple of questions. First, it’s my understanding that those who are seriously mentally ill are not supposed to be assigned to super max facilities like Florence, Colorado. Is that true?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
You’re correct. Our policy prohibits any inmate who suffers from a serious psychiatric illness to be placed in that confinement.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
So obviously, there must be an evaluation before someone is assigned to a super max facility. And I would like to ask you what that evaluation consists of?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
When individuals are being reviewed for placement at the ADX for the type of confinement, we have our psychology services staff – they conduct an evaluation. That is part of the referral process.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
How long would that evaluation process last?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Initially, it’s part of the process. But once they are actually placed in the facility, if we determine -

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Before. I’m talking about before they’re referred to a super max facility to determine whether or not they are suffering from a serious mental illness. How long would that evaluation last?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
The in-person evaluation with our staff, I mean that can take anywhere from a week to two weeks with an assessment of the individual.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
How much time one-on-one between the psychologist and the inmate?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
It varies.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Can you give me an idea? Is it a matter of minutes? Hours?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
I could give you later for the record. I mean in average – this is being conducted, sir, throughout the country in various locations. To give specific amount of time -

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
It’s fair. But I would appreciate if you get that.

So there are now a population of about 450 roughly in the super max facility in Florence, Colorado. Is that correct?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
About 490.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
490? Is there an ongoing evaluation of the mental health of the inmates at Florence?

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

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
And how many professionals are on staff at Florence to achieve that?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
The staffing at the facility we have a ratio which outside of the medical and the psychology staff, the average is more or less around 20 staff there for that.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
20 for physical and mental health evaluation?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Yes, but we have a psychiatrist who’s on staff, and we also have 35 psychiatrist throughout the bureau and we use tele-psychiatry -

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
I’m going to zero right into super max here and ask you to separate those who would handle routine physical issues and those who are charged with dealing with the psychological mental health state of prisoners – 490. How many at Florence?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
I’ll have to submit that for the record, sir.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
I understand there are two. Do you know? That’s okay. I’m not going to put you -

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
The numbers that you’ve provided me for the staff that are there. And what I wanted to articulate is that bureau-wide we utilize the resources for the staff who are spread out, and that was one of the references I made with tele-psychiatry. But the onsite staff would fall within the number that you referenced.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Two?

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

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
So we’re dealing with a super max facility – the highest incidence of segregation and isolation. We want to make certain or at least our policy is that those with mental illness will not be sent there in the first place. And there are 490 persons there, and there are two onsite…to evaluate these prisoners once there.

Now, do you believe that isolation – 23-hour isolation – has a negative impact on the mental health of an individual?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
I believe for those individuals who warrant placement in restricted housing due to their behavior associated with mental health for the safety and security of the individual, the facility, and staff in general that there is a method and a process for ensuring that the inmate receives periodic evaluation and mental health treatment from our mental health providers to determine that we are monitoring these individuals in a manner that we can safely house them within those conditions.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
I will concede the fact that there is a monitoring responsibility here. Perhaps it’s written into the guidelines for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. But I’m asking you as a person who’s been in corrections, do you believe you can live in a box like that 23 hours a day, a person who goes in normal, and it wouldn’t have any negative impact on you?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
I would say that for individuals who are in that status, that for any inmate within the Bureau of Prisons, our objective is always to have the individual to freely be in the general population and we do everything that we can with our resources to ensure that we’re working towards – working to get the individual out into the general population.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
I’m trying to zero in on a specific question. Do you believe that confinement – solitary confinement – 23 hours a day, 5 hours a week when you’re allowed to leave that box something that size – do you believe based on your life experience in this business that that is going to have a negative impact on an individual?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Sir, I would say I don’t believe it is the preferred option and that there would be some concerns with prolonged confinement.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Okay. I think that’s fair. I went to Tamms, a state facility in Illinois, where we have isolation. And they took me into what was almost a incredible experience. It was a class that was being taught to 5 men who were in a 23 hour isolation, if you could imagine. And they were each confined to a plastic holding chamber – fiberglass holding chamber – think in your mind the “Silence of the Lambs” for a moment here. And they were each in these isolated boxes, glass boxes and the teacher was standing in front of them. I have no idea what she was teaching.

But they gave me an opportunity to walk up and speak to each one of them. Look them in the eye and talk just for a few moments. I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know. Some of them I would ask how long their sentence was and such. And two or three – two volunteered that they felt this was the best thing for them – this isolation. They felt that; they expressed that. One man says to me that he’d been sentenced to 25 years but that he’d received an additional sentence of 50 years since he’s been in prison. And I said, “What happened?” He said, “They took me out of isolation, put me in a cell with another, and I told them that if they did, I’d kill him. And I did. I told him to leave me alone. I just want to be alone.” He murdered another inmate, sentenced to another 50 years.

So what I’m trying to say here is I don’t want to just put you on the spot about whether that is the right thing to do or a good thing to do. I want to put it in the context of maintaining an institution and the order in the institution and the protection of innocent people who are part of that institution, trying to strike some balance here.

I would say that man who wants to be alone and isolated has proven that’s the best place for him. I can’t go any further in my evaluation.

But the point I’m trying to get to is this: I worry – I don’t think he’ll ever come out of prison. I worry about those who end up in isolation for extended periods of time who are subjected to mental stress that none of us can even imagine and ultimately go home out of the general population. Is your feeling that once having gone through that experience it is more likely that a person who’ll have problems when they finally emerge from the corrections system?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
From my experience, I would say that we definitely want to ensure that any inmate in the bureau at any time during their incarceration that we are doing everything we can to improve their lives and that they’re on a path for productive efforts towards re-entry. And if the individual is placed in that status for restricted housing – and I know earlier a comment was made that many of these individuals, which in fact 95% of the inmates within the Bureau of Prisons, will be released back to society at some point in time – that we’re doing everything that we can to provide them the necessary training and skills, and so it’s productive not only for the inmate but for the Bureau of Prisons to have these individuals working towards being removed from that status with the appropriate medical care and the psychological investment to ensure that we are proceeding in that manner.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
So let me zero in here. I know that’s your goal, and I’m glad because that’s the right goal. Is your goals served or is there disservice to your goal by the isolation experience that an inmate might go through?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
For individuals who have worked their way into restricted housing, for the safety and the good order of the prison population, as I mentioned earlier, many of these individuals at the ADX are there for egregious acts. And when you look at the bureau’s population of 218,000 – 490 is less than one-third of 1% for our entire population. So these individuals are the most disruptive and the most challenging in the Bureau of Prisons.

However, having said that, we continue to do everything that we can to work towards getting them out of that status. And many of these individuals are there and they will continue to act out.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Some states like Mississippi, Ohio, and Maine are undergoing significant reforms in their prison systems in reducing or eliminating the use of super max facilities, segregated housings, special housing units.

Mississippi’s been able to reduce their segregated population and prison safety has improved. They also reported a significant reduction in costs as a result.

Are you familiar with these state initiatives and what is the Federal Bureau of Prisons doing to – do you study that or follow that model?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Very familiar with the initiatives that you stated, and I would reiterate that within the Bureau of Prisons, I believe that with our classification system in how we review these inmates on an individual case for the behavior that has led them to be placed, that our numbers are relatively small because we’re looking at a small number out of our entire population that are actually placed in restricted housing and it is for a temporary placement and it is not something we look at for long-term.

So we believe that with the numbers if you look at the information, that you will see that our numbers are not that very high when you compare us to the state system.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
I don’t want to draw the wrong conclusion from that but I think your answer was the states can do what they wish but our numbers are so small we’re not going to get into this business of reform.

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
No. What I’m saying is that if you look at the before and after of their numbers and compare the classification tools that are used on the determination of whether or not an inmate should be placed in restricted housing based on the safety, security, and order of the prison environment, if you have individuals who have the propensity to harm others and in many cases who have killed other individuals, that these are individuals who have proven that they’re going to require a restricted form of confinement until it’s proven otherwise with their behavior over a period of time, that we are comfortable to assure the safety of facility putting them back into the general population. So I am saying, sir, that the majority of the inmates that we have within these conditions of confinement, that through our review process and our monitoring of the status of these individuals that we believe we are doing what we can and our best to maintain safe order of the facility.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
So let’s look at the numbers. We asked the Bureau of Prisons how much time people spend in isolation. Here’s what they said: “The average amount of time an inmate spends at super max – ADX facility – is 531 days in isolation.” Roughly a year and a half we’re talking about here. The average amount of time in special management units, which I assume would be in other prisons where people are put in isolated or segregated circumstance, 223 days, which would be over 7 months, 7.5 months. The average amount of time in special housing units is 40 days.

So is the Bureau of Prisons study whether these time periods could be reduced and do you think that’s a possibility of reducing these time periods without compromising the safety of the institution?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
I think the possibility of evaluating further what we can do to ensure that inmates are not staying any longer than necessary, which is something that we definitely as an agency will always strive to do because it is, again, not good for the individual to be in prolonged -

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Let me be more specific. Is there a study underway – I mean, people actually looking at this and thinking we may want to change policy? That’s what I’m driving at. In terms of how many people are in segregation, isolation, how long they stay. Are you studying this?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
This is something that we are looking at internally regarding the timeframes and inmates’ placements and what we can do internally with the resources we have to manage these types of inmates.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Since 2006, there have been 116 suicides in the federal Bureau of Prisons. 53 of the 116 were in segregated housing – ADX, SMU, and SHUs. That does not include attempted suicides. So do you consider this to be an indication that the stress level for an inmate is higher if they are put in segregation?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
We would say that individuals placed in restricted housing – I would say the stress level is obviously higher and as a result we have done everything we can internally to increase our staffing and the resources required to manage the type of population. It’s costly, and that is why I believe – to your point – anything that we can do internally within the bureau to ensures that we’re not increasing costs and or placing individuals unnecessarily, we want to do that because it’s in the individual’s benefit to be in the general population as well as for our management abilities to effectively have, you know, control in an appropriate manner for the facility to have those individuals out freely moving about the general population.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Let me get down to some of the more graphic – and I won’t go into details here at the hearing – but it’s there on the record. I’ve read stories about federal inmates and inmates in state facilities in isolation who have clearly reached a point where they’re self-destructive. They are maiming themselves, mutilating themselves, doing horrible things to themselves. They’re crammed in an environment within that cell which is awful by any human standard. What happens next in the Federal Bureau of Prisons when someone has reached that extreme in their personal conduct?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
If an individual is exhibiting that type of behavior due to suffering from, you know, serious psychiatric illness, those individuals are not – within our policy – individuals that we would keep at the ADX or in restricted housing. These individuals are referred to our psychiatric medical centers for care, and we believe that that’s important. And we would never, under any situation, believe that those individuals should be continued to be housed in that type of setting.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
And because this is a matter in pending litigation, I’m not going to into anymore, especially with anymore specificity into it.

I still go back to the possibility that of the 490 inmates, two professionals who are monitoring them – the psychological health of the inmates and the impact of solitary or the impact of any prison policy on – and it strikes me that it raises some serious questions. How many people work at the ADX facility that might have prisoner contact?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
We have on average anywhere from 360 staff for our – staff in complement for the ADX. But to the number of psychologists at the site for ADX, in total we have 9 psychologists that work at the complex.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Nine?

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

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Is there a person who has the responsibility of hearing inmate complaints about treatment at the ADX facility?

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

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
What is that title or designation?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
If an individual is raising complaints against the facility, it’s more of an internal review process where they can raise complaints to the correctional services supervisor, the associate warden, or warden. And with our procedures, it can go to the regional director for that region and all the way to our headquarters in Washington.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Is that person designated a special investigative agent?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Yes, if there are allegations brought against staff or issues against the facility, that would be the position.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Do you know who that person is at the ADX facility?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
I know the position, not the individual.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Well, once again, this is a matter that’s been raised as part of pending litigation. I won’t get into it. But there have been questions raised as to the possible conflict of interests of this individual who is married to one of the corrections officers at the super max facility, and supposedly the watchdog and whistleblower on behalf of prisoners who would protest treatment by the corrections officers. Do you think that on its face is a conflict?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Due to the pending litigation and in the interest of the bureau, I cannot respond to that question, sir.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Mr. Samuels, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, Joseph Ponte, has implemented a number of reforms in his state, working side-by-side with mental health workers, correction officers, advocacy groups. These reforms led to a 50% reduction of Maine’s administrative segregation population. In written testimony for this hearing, Commissioner Ponte wrote that the first step in evaluating corrections system is to be aware of what the current body of research tell us about changing prisoner behavior. Do you share the commissioner’s belief about the importance of understanding current research?

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

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
I hope that that will lead to honest evaluation of how we can continue to make for a safe prison system, one that is fair and humane, one that anticipates, as you said, that the vast majority of those inmates will one day be back on the street and the condition which they will be in when they return to society.

There will be written questions along the way here. But I appreciate your testimony. Thank you very much for joining us.

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Thank you.

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