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

Partial transcript of the Sen. Mazie Hirono’s (D-Hawaii) 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. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii):
I want to thank all of you for coming in and testifying and shedding light on this issue. And I particularly want to thank Mr. Thibodeaux because your testimony was very – you have been there. And as we share in Hawaii, mahalo for sharing your terrible experiences.

I am especially concerned about reports that women are confined in solitary for reporting abuse, including sexual abuse, by the Bureau of Prisons staff. And especially as I have been working with Sen. Gillibrand and other Senators to address the issue of sexual assault in the military, which is another institution where survivors of sexual assault can also be at the mercy of their supervisors and the chain of commands due to the power dynamic and possible threats of retaliation that can exist in both of these environments.

So, I want to thank you, Ms. Kerman, for your testimony.

And I do note that Mr. Raemisch that you noted that 97% of our prisoners do get released into the community, so we really need to pay attention to what’s happening with them, because as you said, Mr. Raemisch, they should come out better not worse than when they were in prison and I think that’s a sentiment that all of us would share.

Ms. Kerman, you heard Director Samuels responses to my questions about what happens in the instance of the abuse of power by the Bureau of Prisons personnel especially with regard to women and sexual abuse. Now, having heard those responses, do you think that the Bureau of Prisons is doing enough to prevent and prosecute this kind of abuse of power by their staff?

Piper Kerman, Author of Orange is the New Black:
No. I believe that in every women’s prison and jail that sexual abuse of women and girls by staff is a problem. In some places like Otter Creek, Kentucky or one other prison in Alabama, those abuses have been revealed to be systemic and very widespread and very sinister.

What I observed during the time I was locked up was that a staff member who was under suspicion for sexually abusing prisoners would be removed from direct contact with the prisoner or prisoners that he was accused. They were always men in the instances that I knew of. But they would still be there on the property, and of course, a person is innocent until proven guilty. I firmly believe that. But many, many aspects of the experience of incarceration had that silencing effect. The fact that your abuser may not be in fact be far away from you, may be in view – he might be driving perimeter in the facility in which you are held, so you might in fact see him all the time.

The fear of solitary confinement and isolation – I can’t over-emphasize how powerful a disincentive that is. To go into the SHU for 90 days is a really long time. And typically, during the type of SIS investigation that happens in the BOP, those investigations do not happen quickly. Not only will you deal with the pain of isolation, which is so well detailed in some of the written testimony which has been submitted, but on a very practical level, you will lose your housing, you will lose your prison job, you will lose a host of privileges, obviously, if you’re held in isolation. All of these things conspire to really, really silence women. And of course, the concern about how much they can trust the people to whom they are supposed to report abuse is a very serious consideration.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii):
So, there are all kinds of disincentives in the environment where reporting of these kinds of abuse of power does not readily occur. Do you have any thoughts on what we can do? And I’m not even talking about using the threat of being put into solitary as a way to control and hide this kind of behavior on the part of the staff.

Piper Kerman, Author of Orange is the New Black:
The best case scenario is for female prisoners, and frankly for all prisoners, to have increased access to the outside world. So the person you would be most inclined to trust in terms of seeking redress against abuse would not necessarily be someone inside of the institution in which you live.

Access to counsel is a tremendously important issue. The vast majority of prisoners in any system are indigent. You know, 80% of criminal defendants are too poor to afford a lawyer, and so their access to counsel before they were locked up is poor, and their access to counsel while they’re locked up is negligible.

So those are the things that would make the biggest difference. And frankly, those things would make the biggest difference in their rehabilitation as well, not just in their ability to access justice while incarcerated but also in their ability to be rehabilitated and to return safely to the community.

The isolation of solitary confinement is just a small metaphor for the total isolation of incarceration, and when we put people to the margins, it makes it harder for them to return to the community.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii):
And I don’t want to confine my questions on women and the deleterious effects…And for the rest of the panel, Ms. Kerman has said that maybe one of the ways that we can shed light on what is going on in our prison system. And I’m not saying that this is symptomatic of everything that’s going on; it’s a tough problem. But would you agree that providing more access to the outside world is one way that we can prevent some of these abuses of power from occurring within the system?

Marc Levin, Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation:
Yes, and also an ombudsman. We had a scandal of sexual abuses in our juvenile state facilities in Texas in late 2006, early 2007. One of the things that we did was create an ombudsman office, which is not in the chain of command of any prison warden and actually reported directly to the commission – the Texas Youth Commission – at that time, which was members appointed by the governor, so actually not even reporting to the paid director of the commission. So when you have an ombudsman who’s not in the chain of command at a particular prison unit who these reports of abuses can go to and that individual can then independently look into them. And certainly, not everyone is accurate but some of them are. That way, when it’s not kept totally within the unit, there’s more accountability and independence in examining that.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii):
Would the rest of you agree that that’s one of the ways that we could help?

Craig DeRoche, President of Justice Fellowship:
I would say very much so. And we find that at Prison Fellowship, the more the prison lets folks in from the outside, the less problems it exists. It’s an inverse relationship and I think that that would continue. And I know the gravity for state or federal officials – I saw it first hand when I was Speaker of the House in Michigan – we had a mentally ill inmate found dead in his cell after being neglected for 72 hours and the cell was 110 degrees. And I fought that as hard as I could but the gravity was “We got this. We’re going to do an investigation. We’ve got people.” And it didn’t get the satisfactory outcomes that you would get with the justice system on the outside. I think we need independent voices, and I think people immediate access, not a month later, to a phone call about something that’s happened in their life, Senator.

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