Transcript: Sen. Dick Durbin’s Q&A with the second panel of witnesses on solitary confinement – Feb. 25, 2014

Partial transcript of the Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Illinois) Q&A with the second panel of witnesses 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. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Mr. Thibodeaux, in the opening statement, I talked about the inmate that I met who said “I got an extra 50 years because I told them if they put somebody in the cell, I’d kill them and I did.” It was a stunning, cold-blooded statement. Did you run into similar circumstances with other inmates who were that dangerous?

Damon Thibodeaux, former death row inmate from Minneapolis, MN:
There was one. He volunteered for execution, and that’s why he dropped his appeals, because he stated that if he ever got out he would do it again.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
What is the right thing to do with that kind of person based on what you’ve seen in your – I don’t know how to describe it – incredible life experience?

Damon Thibodeaux, former death row inmate from Minneapolis, MN:
Well, I’ve also come in contact with individuals who are imprisoned rightfully. They’re on death row. And they make no attempt to profess their innocence. They just would prefer life as opposed to death. But someone who would make a statement like that to kill someone that’s put in a cell with them, just leave them in a cell by themselves. You let them out at appropriate times. You don’t just lock them in a hole and forget about them.

You know, if I was to do that or you were to do that to someone in your home, you would go to prison for that. It’s inhumane.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Thank you. Ms. Kerman, I know that Sen. Hirono and others may raise the question about women – incarcerated women. And you’ve lived that, and you know the vulnerabilities they have. I think about other categories – those who are being held for immigration offenses, which are technical violations. They’re not crimes per se. I mean, it’s a violation of law, there’s no question about it. But it isn’t a question of a violent crime or anything like that. And the vulnerability they would have because of language and culture and threat of deportation. What can you tell us about those women and what they face?

Piper Kerman, Author of Orange is the New Black:
Women who have not been convicted of a crime and yet are held in confinement and potentially subjected to solitary confinement for any variety of reasons – that’s a horrifying thought. Too often, solitary confinement is used not to control people who are truly dangerous to themselves or others but as a tool of control within an institution when other management tools of an institution – whether it be a detention center or whether it be a prison or a jail – would be far more humane and likely more effective.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Was there any recourse at Danbury in terms of person or office you can contact as an inmate if you saw or felt you were being threatened by a guard, for example?

Piper Kerman, Author of Orange is the New Black:
Your best chance, if you felt that you were under threat and in danger from either a staffer or frankly from another prisoner, would be if you had contact with the outside world. And different prisoners have different degrees of contact with the outside world. Frankly, a prisoner like myself who is middle-class and has a lot of access, you know, money on my phone account and so on and so forth has a much better chance at gaining recourse if I was subjected to either sexual abuse or any other kind of abuse.

But within a prison system, it is a very slippery slope to try to gain justice and inmates have a very limited trust of prison officials unless a prison is run in a way that is transparent and humane in the first place.

You know, there’s a medium security men’s state prison I visited in Ohio a number of times. It is run in a very, very different way than any prison I was ever held in. And the warden there is a really remarkable person.

So, different institutions are run in very different ways and it makes all the difference in terms of whether a prisoner who is being targeted for abuse, whether it is by staff or by another prisoner, feels comfortable seeking justice.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Mr. Thibodeaux, how much contact did you have with the outside world in your 15 year experience?

Damon Thibodeaux, former death row inmate from Minneapolis, MN:
I had five contact visits with my family in the 15 years that I was there.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
How often were you able to meet with your attorney?

Damon Thibodeaux, former death row inmate from Minneapolis, MN:
Whenever they got out to visit. I had a law firm from Minneapolis on my case as well. They probably saw me there three, maybe four times.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
In 15 years?

Damon Thibodeaux, former death row inmate from Minneapolis, MN:
In 15 years. But I was more concerned with the case work they were doing. If they wanted to come and visit with me, fine. Being in a cell like that, you kind of cherish the visits. You know? But I was more concerned with the progress that was being made in my case.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
Mr. Raemisch, there was a point in Director Samuels’s testimony that I really kind of stunned me. I think what I heard him say and I want to make sure that I don’t misstate it is he thought that 4% of the federal population in prison suffered from mental illness. I may be off on that number but not too far off. I’ve heard numbers about people with mental illness and challenges in prisons, state and otherwise, dramatically higher than that. What is your impression about the question of mental illness and incarceration?

Rick Raemisch, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections:
I’m not sure – I can’t speak for him, and I believe the 4% was right. But what went through my mind, it’s very possible he was talking about those that fall within the definition of major mentally ill, which our number’s about 4%. But our mental health needs that don’t into that major category is about 34%. So it’s about a third of our population.

I can tell you about 70% of our population has some type of drug and/or alcohol problem also that threw into the mix.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
And what we found in the first hearing was that many people with – mentally challenged people – and I can’t tell you at what levels – but many mentally challenged people found it difficult to follow the rules as well as they should have and any type of resistance on their part because either they wanted to resist or they were mentally challenged was answered with segregation.

Rick Raemisch, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections:
Let me give you the example I give to – when I speak publicly about it. If I was walking down the sidewalk past the bus stop and someone was mumbling fairly loudly to themselves, like is often the case, we’d keep walking and understand that there is some type of mental health issue. Typically, in an institution that would probably get someone, if they were disrupting the day-to-day activities of the institution, would get themselves into an administrative seg cell.

So what I said – and I can’t stress this enough – in my mind is that administrative segregation is used – except for the extremely dangerous – is used to allow an institution to run more efficiently. It suspends the problem at best but multiplies it at its worst. And so, it does run more efficiently until you let that person out of there.

If you haven’t addressed what got him in there to begin with, you’ve done nothing, and that’s the problem with the mentally ill. And what I struggle with and what we’re trying to change in Colorado and we’re making great progress is how can you hold someone accountable if they don’t understand the rule they broke to begin with? It’s a no-win situation.

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