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

Partial transcript of the Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) 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. Ted Cruz (R-Texas):

…I’d like to thank each of the witnesses for coming here and for giving your testimony. And I’d also like to thank you for your advocacy and involvement with the justice system and advocating on behalf of those who are incarcerated. And in particular, Mr. Thibodeaux, I’d like to thank you for your powerful and moving testimony.

When I was a lawyer in private practice, I had an opportunity to represent John Thompson, who was another individual who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Louisiana and sentenced to death, and he was subsequently exonerated. And it was a powerful experience personally having the opportunity to get to know Mr. Thompson and to represent him in both the Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

And so, let me echo the chairman’s comment to apologize to you for the ordeal you endured.

Damon Thibodeaux, former death row inmate from Minneapolis, MN:

Thank you, sir.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas):

And to thank you for having courage to speak out about it, because that cannot be easy to do.

This issue is an issue that raises complicated issues because you’ve got conflicting interests.

Mr. Raemisch, I’d like to ask in your judgment, with what frequency is solitary confinement used for relatively minor infractions?

Rick Raemisch, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections:

I can only at this point give you my impression, and my impression is that it is incredibly over-used in that area.

I was talking during the break that really the process hasn’t changed in over 100 years, and I try and think of what’s still being done 100 years ago that’s being done today that should be done. And I can’t think of anything. And so, when I look at that whole process, it again has become a tool to make a facility run more efficient. And that part of our mission, we’re failing because we’re sending them out into the community worse than they came in. And I believe that’s what lengthy periods of time in administrative segregation does.

And if I may just say that when I hear some of the comments – and I spoke at John Jay University a few weeks ago on some issues in corrections. And sitting next to me was the director of the Texas corrections, California corrections – some pretty big systems. And when I was asked that question by one of the audience members and I said – and I pointed to the others – “Welcome to the knuckle-dragging thug club.” Because the public perception is that’s what we are. And if I can stress one thing – and I saw Mr. Samuels try to stress it – and I would also is that at one time early in my law enforcement career, I may have had that same impression, but I truly have to tell you that overall, I have never seen a more dedicated professional group of men and women that risk their lives and they do it because they want to have a safer community and they put themselves at great risk to do that.

That aside, there’s like any large bureaucracy – and we tend to be the largest in each state or close to it; I have 6,000 employees – you end up with problems, and it’s how we react to those problems.

And that’s why right now – one, I really appreciate what you’ve done by calling this hearing. And two, by having me participate, because I can tell you that I don’t know of any state in the nation…that is not taking a very hard look at their administrative segregation policies. You’ve really brought it to the forefront.

We all understand that as professionals that the movement – this isn’t the right way we should be treating people, and we get that.

What we do ask for is help in finding some solutions because there are some that are too dangerous that they can’t be let out. But I also have to stress that’s a small number.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas):

Thank you, Mr. Raemisch. In your written testimony, you stated that while the goal of many of your reforms is to decrease the number of offenders housed in administrative segregation. There will always be a need for a prison within a prison. Some offenders will need to be isolated to provide a secure environment for both staff and offenders.

It strikes me that a great many people would think that solitary confinement, particularly for an extended period of time, is not an appropriate punishment for relatively minor infractions but could well be a necessary tool for the most violent inmates who may pose a real threat to the safety of other inmates or of guards.

Each of the members of this panel has interacted with the criminal justice system in different capacities. Ms. Kerman and Mr. Thibodeaux, as inmates. Mr. Raemisch, administering a correctional institution and system. Mr. DeRoche, ministering and helping bring hope and redemption to those incarcerated. Mr. Levin, studying the important justice issues.

The question that I would ask of all five of you is in your judgment based on the different experiences that you’ve had. Is there an appropriate role for solitary confinement? Is there a need for it? And in what circumstances, if at all? And I would welcome the views of all five witnesses.

Rick Raemisch, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections:

In my mind, right now, yes but in a limited sense. And that’s because I’ve said that there are some diseases for which there are no cure right now. And that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying to find the cure for the disease. But what I’ve been told by my head clinicians is that we have four to five in our system that if they are let out of administrative segregation, they will kill someone, and they lay that responsibility on me, and I get that.

But I also understand that in all other areas that there’s so much room for improvement. Let’s figure that group out a little while from now. Let’s take care of all the other numbers that are sitting in administrative segregation that at this point there’s many other alternatives other than keeping them there.

Marc Levin, Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation:

Yes, that’s an excellent question.

First of all, yes, I would say we have to distinguish 24 hour and even 72 hour placement to diffuse a situation from long-term.

In Texas state prisons, the average time in solitary is four years. So, some served as long as 24 years.

The other issue is in Texas, thousands are placed in solitary confinement solely for being suspected gang members upon initially entering prison, having committed no disciplinary violations. And I think it’s critical – and I question the extent to which we’re doing that in Texas. We have gone down in our total solitary confinement by over 1,000 in the last couple of years since we started bringing this up at the legislature and there is an ongoing study in Texas – an independent study that the legislature approved last session.

But I think that one of the issues you brought up commissioner, I think, that’s very important is if you’ve got somebody in solitary who’s 23 hours no stimulation, having them be able to earn an hour more this month, okay, in programming and such so that they can get out or gradually work their way towards more interaction. And so that’s a great idea.

And I think generally speaking, as I’ve said, the more you can create both positive incentives and graduated sanctions for inmates to address disciplinary issues, that’s going to be able to make sure that people in long-term solitary confinement really should be those that have done harm to other inmates or staff or have made statements indicating that they intend to do that.

And again, the short-term can be used – the 24 to 72 hours – to diffuse. But even that, we’ve heard about the CIT teams, there’s de-escalation training, there’s things – just making sure there’s not overcrowding and there’s proper ratios – that can diffuse a lot of tensions that lead to violence behind bars.

Craig DeRoche, President of Justice Fellowship:

There’s a study, Senator, that was done in Minnesota for a faith-based dorm that we’ve run there for more than 10 years. There was a 10-year study of every single inmate that went through that program, and it found that there was 0.8% recidivism rate, and that was every type of prisoner that went through there from the worst of the worst on through. And at the same time, it found that there was no deviation between the technical violations of the people that went through that program and the general population in Minnesota, which had a 37% recidivism rate.

In other words, human beings were still going to be human beings even if they’ve moved away from a criminal lifestyle. So I do think that the director’s comments about technical violations that we should take to heart that “Boy, that’s the same type of behavior I see in my kids. That’s the same type of behavior I see in the workplace.” And guess what, when we study it and we find a bunch of people moved away from criminal activity, they’re still going to get it wrong on a technical side of how they get through a day.

And so, we need to take that seriously of what I started my statement with – “If you want to change the culture on the outside in our cities and in our states, we’ve got to change the culture on the inside.”

And I’m so impressed and encouraged to hear people talking about going out, Mr. Chairman and to the director, his willingness to go see people who are doing it right. Because there are prisons where the population of the people in the prisons have made a decision that they don’t want to live in a bad, downward spiral in culture.

And when skilled wardens change that culture and they use very sparingly the use of segregation, with people knowing that they can return back to a positive and improving culture when they’ve straightened their act out, that’s when it’s best used. Temporary, always with the invitation of working your way back because these corrections officers do have the responsibility – the same as the noble people who serve in our fire departments and our police departments – they’re supposed to be making it more safe for us as taxpayers when these people leave.

They’ve got a difficult job. But we’ve got to empower them. We’ve got to train them. And we have to hold them accountable. We have to have oversight like we do in the other professions. When you’re using this power, how is it being meted out and to what end, what results, what outcomes, what metrics? Because we can do a far better job than we are, Senator. But you’re not going to be able to eliminate it if that’s what you’re asking for.

Piper Kerman, Author of Orange is the New Black:

I don’t believe that solitary confinement has a rehabilitative value, and therefore, I think it should not be used other than for the most serious security concerns.

What I’ve seen solitary confinement used most often is that disciplinary seg, not ad seg, is that it’s true that women don’t often go to ad seg although sometimes they do spend years and years in solitary confinement.

I can only emphasize there’s nothing rehabilitative about being locked into a tiny box for 23 hours a day, and so correctional systems should take very seriously their responsibility to rehabilitate and direct the tremendous amounts of taxpayer dollars that they consume towards that goal.

Damon Thibodeaux, former death row inmate from Minneapolis, MN:

In my 15 years in Angola, it go to a point where we were all being taken to the yard one at a time. When I got there, they were taking us one tier at a time. But an incident takes place and everyone suffers the consequences, not just the person who commits the incident. And that’s a real big minus in the system because it tells everyone else that, “Well, it doesn’t matter if I’m the model inmate because I’m going to get punished if someone else does something wrong anyway. So why should I bother?”

If solitary confinement is going to be used for the worst of the worst, as it should because safety is the biggest issue in prison because, let’s face it, we all agree that not everyone in prison is innocent. So if it’s going to be used, know your limitations with it. You know, don’t just lock someone up in a cell and forget about them. They’re still a human being somewhere. They may have mental issues. They may have emotional issues. But if you identify that and find a way around it, then you can deal with it in a humane way. It doesn’t have to be “Okay, just put him in a jumpsuit and shower shoes and lock him in a cell for 23 hours a day.” You know?

The one thing I wanted more of when I was in the cell was time out of the cell. You know? Sadly, that’s not the reality.

But if you want to have solitary confinement, use it in the most limited capacity possible.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas):

Thank you very much to all five of you.


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