Transcript: Testimony of former death row inmate Damon Thibodeaux on solitary confinement – Feb. 25, 2014

Partial transcript of the testimony of Damon Thibodeaux, of Minneapolis, MN, who served 15 years on death row before being exonerated and released in 2012, 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:

Thank you, Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Cruz, and members of the subcommittee. Thank you for inviting me to speak about my 15 years in solitary confinement on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

I’m here because in September of 2012, I became the 141st actually innocent death row exoneree since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

But before I was exonerated and released, I was subjected to solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for 15 years between the ages of 23 and 38.

This experience was all the more painful and cruel because I had not committed the crime for which I’ve been sentenced to die.

In my written statement, I’ve described the physical and mental torture that inmates in solitary confinement suffer.

The dials for heat and cold are often unbearable, and normally physical and mental activity, contact, and access to health care are severely limited.

As harmful as these conditions are, life in solitary is made all the worse because it’s often a hopeless existence. Humans cannot survive without food and water. They cannot survive without sleep. But they also cannot survive without hope.

Years on end in solitary, particularly on death row, will drain that hope from anyone because in solitary there’s nothing to live for.

I know this because I lost my hope after realizing what my existence would be like for years on end until I was either executed or exonerated.

I was on the verge of committing what was basically suicide by state, by voluntarily giving up legal rights and allowing the state to carry out the sentence of death – something that would have been done only a few weeks after signing the necessary paperwork.

My lawyer, Denise LeBoeuf, talked me out of doing that by convincing me that I would be exonerated and released someday. And that’s why I was able to regain my hope and became willing to continue my legal fight.

I was one of the fortunate on death row because I had Denise and my other lawyers and supporters. But the state effectively kills most men in solitary years before it injects them with any lethal drugs.

I can see no reason to subject anyone to this type of existence, no matter how certain we are that they are guilty of a horrible crime and are among the worst of the worst.

Even if we want to punish them severely, we should refrain from this form of confinement and treatment only because it’s the humane and moral thing for us to do.

My religious faith teaches that we should be humane and caring for all people – saint and sinner alike.

What does it say about us as a nation that even before the law allows the state to execute a person, we’re willing to let it kill them bit by bit and day by day by subjecting them to solitary confinement?

I do not condone what those who have killed and committed other serious offenses have done. But I also don’t condone what we do to them when we put them in solitary for years on end and treat them as sub-human.

We are better than that. As a civilized society, we should be better than that.

I would like to believe that the vast majority of the people in the United States would be appalled if they knew what we are doing to inmates in solitary confinement and understood that we are torturing them for reasons that have little, if anything, to do with protecting other inmates or prison guards from them. It’s torture, pure and simple – no matter what else we want to call it.

I would like to think that we can all agree that our Constitution prohibits it.

I thank the subcommittee for looking at the situation and educating the public about it…


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