Transcript: Opening remarks by Sen. Dick Durbin on solitary confinement – Feb. 25, 2014

Partial transcript of the opening remarks Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) on solitary confinement. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights hearing on “Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences” was held on Feb. 25, 2014:

Today’s hearing is entitled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement Part II: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences.”

…We have an obligation to honestly consider our own human rights record at home.

The United States has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world. With 5% of the world’s population, we have close to 25% of its prisoners.

African-American and Hispanic American are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites.

And the United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation.

These are human rights issues that we cannot ignore.

Congress has been unable to find common ground on many important issues, but criminal justice reform is one area where we can show the American people that our government still functions.

…We have made some progress. In 2010, Congress unanimously passed the Fair Sentencing Act, bipartisan legislation that I co-authored with Sen. Jeff Sessions that greatly reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine.

And just a few weeks ago, the Judiciary Committee reported the Smarter Sentencing Act, bipartisan legislation that I’ve introduced with Sen. Mike Lee of Utah that would reform federal drug sentencing and focus law enforcement resources on the most serious offenders. I want to thank my Ranking Member [Ted Cruz] for co-sponsoring that Smarter Sentencing Act as well.

I also want to thank Sen. Cruz for his bipartisan cooperation on putting this hearing together today.

Almost two years ago, this subcommittee held the first ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement. We heard testimony about the dramatic increase in the use of solitary confinement that began in the 1980s.

We learned that vulnerable groups like immigrants, children, sex abuse victims, and individuals with serious and persistent mental illness are often held in isolation for long periods of time.

We heard about the serious impact – fiscal impact – of solitary confinement. It costs almost three times as much to keep a federal prisoner in segregation than in the general population.

And we learned about the human impact of holding tens of thousands of men, women, and children in small, windowless cells 23 hours a day for days, for months, and for years with very little, if any, contact with the outside world.

This extreme isolation can have serious psychological impacts on an inmate. According to several studies, at least half of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement.

And I’ll never forget the testimony in our last hearing of Anthony Graves, who was held in solitary for 10 of his 18 years in prison before he was exonerated. Mr. Graves told this subcommittee – and I quote – “No one can begin to imagine the psychological effects isolation has on another human being. Solitary confinement does one thing: it breaks a man’s will to live.”

Now, I’ve been chairman of this committee for seven years. I cannot remember a more compelling testimony.

At the last hearing, we heard from the director of the Bureau of Prisons, Charles Samuels, who’s with us again today.

I wasn’t particularly happy with the testimony at the last hearing, and I think I made that clear to Mr. Samuels. But I do want to commend him and his team because they heard the message of our first hearing.

At my request, Mr. Samuels agreed to the first ever independent assessment of our federal prisons’ solitary confinement policy and practice. This assessment is underway, and I’ll look forward to an update today from Mr. Samuels, who’s with us.

At our 2012 hearing, we found that the overuse of solitary can present a serious threat to public safety, increasing violence inside and outside prisons.

The reality is that the vast majority of prisoners held in isolation will be released someday. The damaging impact of their time in solitary or their release directly from solitary can make them a danger to themselves and their neighbors.

I want to note this is the one-year anniversary of the tragic death of federal correctional officer Eric Williams, who was killed by an inmate in a high-security prison in Pennsylvania. We owe it to correctional officers who put their lives on the line everyday to do everything we can to protect their safety.

Make no mistake, that means that some dangerous inmates must be held in segregated housing.

But we also learned from states like Maine and Mississippi, which have reduced violence in prisons by reducing the overuse of solitary.

I made a personal visit to a prison now basically closed in ’09 called Tamms. Tamms was our state maximum security prison. I asked that they take me to the worst of the worst, the most dangerous inmates, and they took me to an area with five prisoners.

They happened to be going through some unusual classroom experience while I was there, which I never quite understood, but each of the prisoners was in a separate fiberglass unit, protected from one another and from the teacher.

And I walked to each of them and spoke to them, trying to get an understanding of who they were and why they were there and how they perceived their situation.

It was much different for each one of them. But there was one in particular that I remembered. He looked to be a community college professor – a clean-cut young man. And I asked him, “Well, how long are you sentenced to prison?” He said, “Originally 20 years.” And I said, “Originally?” “Yes,” he said. “They added another 50 years.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Because I told them if they put anybody in a cell with me, I would kill him and I did.”

Now, that’s the reality of prison life in the most extreme circumstance. I know that we want to make certain that those who work in prisons and those who also are prisoners are safe, and we’ve got to balance that against our concerns about humane treatment of those in solitary confinement.

We must address the overcrowding crisis in federal prisons that made prisons more dangerous and dramatically increased the inmate-to-correctional officer ratio.

That’s one important reason I want to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act, which will significantly reduce prison overcrowding by inmates who’ve committed non-violent drug offenses.

And it’s one reason I’m working to open the Thomson Correctional Center in my own state. I look forward to working with the federal Bureau of Prisons to ensure that Thomson helps to alleviate overcrowding and that all prisoners held there are treated appropriately and humanely.

Let me say a word about an especially vulnerable group – children. According to the Justice Department, 35% of juveniles in custody report being held in solitary confinement for sometime. 35%.

The mental health effects of even short periods of isolation, including depression and risk of suicide, are heightened among youths. That’s why the American Academy of Child and Adolescence Psychiatry has called for a ban on solitary for children under 18.

At our first hearing, we heard about many promising reform efforts at the state level. As is so often the case, state governments continue to lead the way.

Let’s take a few examples. Last year, my home state of Illinois closed the Tamms Correctional Center, which I had mentioned earlier, relocating the remaining prisoners to other facilities.

In the Ranking Member’s home state of the Texas, the state legislature last year passed legislation requiring an independent commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the use of solitary confinement in state prisons and jails.

And New York has just announced sweeping reforms that will greatly limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and pregnant women.

There’ve been other positive developments since our first hearing.

U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement issued important guidance limiting the use of solitary confinement for immigration detainees. This is a positive step for some of the most vulnerable individuals in detention. I want to thank ICE for this effort.

The American Psychiatric Association issued a policy statement opposing the prolonged isolation of individuals with serious mental illness.

More must be done. That’s why today I’m calling on all federal and state facilities to end the use of solitary confinement of juveniles, pregnant women, and individuals with serious and persistent mental illness, except in the rarest of circumstances.

By reforming our solitary confinement practices, the United States can protect human rights, improve public safety and be fiscally responsible. It is the right and smart thing to do and the American people deserve no less.

Excerpts from Durbin’s closing remarks:

…There are some things that strike me as more or less consensus.

We don’t want to release people from segregation or solitary into society. The results are disastrous and they’ve been well-documented.

We don’t want to see children in solitary confinement or segregation, perhaps in the most extreme cases maybe, but otherwise no.

We know the vulnerability of women in incarceration and even more so in segregation.

And we certainly know the impact of mental illness on the behavior of prisoners and the problems they run into once put in solitary confinement.

If you get a chance to read Mr. Thibodeaux’s testimony, do it because he goes through in graphic detail elements of segregation or solitary confinement, which should not be acceptable under any circumstance – under any circumstances – where the food that you’re given is barely edible, where there’s virtually no medical care given to those who are in this situation. I was struck by the sentence where he said, “For 15 years, you never saw the night sky or stars.” It’s just one of those gripping realizations when you think about what you’ve been through. The limited access you had to even keep your body fit. The limited access that you had to outside visitors, even as you said, you made a conscious choice that you didn’t want your son to see you there during that circumstance.

All of these things suggest treatment that goes beyond incarceration. It is – it really crosses the line, Mr. Raemisch, in terms of what we should do to any human being, any fellow human being, and that’s what this comes to…


Learn More:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.