Transcript: Sen. Al Franken’s Q&A w/ BOP Director Charles Samuels on solitary confinement

Partial transcript of Q&A with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) and Charles E. Samuels, Jr., Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 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:

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
…An the outset, I’d like to welcome Damon Thibodeaux, a Minnesotan who will testify later today. Mr. Thibodeaux, you’ve turned your tragedy into a story of hope and courage and I want to thank you for sharing it today.

I’d also like to thank the Chairman for holding this hearing and all the work that you’ve done on this issue over the years.

This practice of solitary confinement or restrictive housing is a troubling one for a number of reasons – for moral reasons, economic reasons as the Chairman said in his opening statement, for public safety reasons.

One of the aspects of this that concerns me is the mental health aspect of the problem as we’ve been discussing. Over the years, we’ve seen the corrections and law enforcement systems take on more and more responsibilities for responding to mental illnesses in our communities.

Last winter, I hosted a series of roundtable discussions with law enforcement personnel and mental health advocates in my state of Minnesota. The Sheriff who runs the jails in Hennepin County – it’s our largest county in Minnesota – told me that about a third of the inmates in his jails really belong in mental health treatment programs and not behind bars.

And you’ve been talking about treating people behind bars. Maybe that’s not where they should be treated if it’s possible. There are people with mental illness who’ve committed some crimes and they need to be behind bars, but there are a lot who probably should be elsewhere.

I have a bill called the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act that will improve access to mental health treatment for those who need it, and the purpose is to relieve some of the burden on law enforcement personnel and on correctional personnel. The bill also funds flexibility and creating alternatives to solitary confinement in our jails and prisons. I’d like to thank Sen. Durbin and Leahy, Hatch and Grassley, Graham and others for co-sponsoring my bill. I’d like to invite others to join that effort.

I want to ask you a couple of things. One about crisis intervention training.

Director Samuels, last March I visited the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota. They’re kind of a psychiatric unit also behind bars. They said they benefitted tremendously from CIT – crisis intervention training – and they said they’ve avoided serious injuries and I think incidents that may lead to inmates going into solitary confinement when they act out and become violent. We see these on these weekend shows that show people behind bars and the guards have to strap on all kinds of protective ware. They said they can avoid that by understanding when and talking someone down instead of, you know, waking up or provoking a terrible conflict but also not stopping it.

Can you talk a bit about the role that CIT or crisis intervention training plays in the federal prison system?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Thank you, Sen. Franken, and I’m glad you raised this question. The National Institute of Corrections, which is also part of the Bureau of Prisons, actually provides the training for crisis intervention. And it is based on a request of state systems.

We’ve ensured that our staff, specifically the bureau’s psychologists, have participated in the training. As a result of what they’ve seen, we have implemented our own protocols relative to the training to use various elements. And we have field tested this training in one of our institutions, and as a result of it, we are obtaining the feedback. It is something that we are considering to look at actually adopting within the bureau based on the federal system and our unique needs.

So, to your point, it does serve value and we’re looking to explore doing more with it within the federal system.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
…You provided a lot of statistics about solitary or about restrictive housing. I just want to get more into the human aspect of this. I kind of wanted on the crisis intervention training. But how big is a cell? How big is the average cell in solitary? …It’s the human thing we’re talking about. We’ve got the statistics. How big is the cell? …The size of a cell that a person is kept in.

I want to get some idea of – I don’t know – am I asking this wrong? [Laughter]

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
…The average size of a cell is…

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
Is what you’re saying is there is no such thing as an average cell for solitary? But I mean, typically in your Bureau of Prisons, if someone’s in solitary confinement, how big is the cell typically?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
The average size should be equivalent to six by four.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
Okay. That’s an answer. Six by four.

Does the person in the cell during months and months of this, they have an ability to talk to family?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota):
They always do?

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
It’s not on a frequent basis, but we provide individuals who are in restrictive housing an average, I mean, they’re receiving one phone call per month. And this is something that we are looking at when I talk about reform for our disciplinary process for those placed in restrictive housing. We need to change and that is something that we’re willing to continue to look at to ensure that we’re providing more access for frequency for phone calls as well as visits.

…And for the actual – it’s ten by seven for the cell size.


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