Transcript: Testimony of Justice Fellowship President Craig DeRoche on solitary confinement – Feb. 25, 2014

Partial transcript of the testimony of Craig DeRoche, President of Justice Fellowship, 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:

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Cruz, members of the committee. Thank you for revisiting this pressing issue.

Changing the culture in the prisons will change the culture in our cities and our states.

The disproportionate and arbitrary use of solitary confinement is not only immoral, it is a missed opportunity to break the cycle of crime.

This approach does not increase public safety and is contrary to Justice Fellowship’s goals for the criminal justice system – accountability and restoration.

Teaching people to become good citizens rather than just good prisoners is a charge entrusted to the correctional officers by the taxpayers.

Skilled wardens understand that ensuring prisoners become responsible and productive members of society at large is paramount to the safety of our communities, whether inside or outside of the prison walls.

Part of creating safe communities inside prisons include removing prisoners – individuals – who violate societal norms by placing themselves or others at risk. But skilled wardens also understand that the removal process needs to be temporary and what is being asked of the prisoner should be available to them and also achievable.

Many in this room know that Justice Fellowship founder Chuck Colson saw his power and pride crumble when he left being President Nixon’s counsel to becoming a federal prisoner. But upon his release from prison, his work actually started touring a solitary confinement unit in Walla Walla prison in 1979. And out of that meeting, Senators, is where Justice Fellowship was founded.

And I’m also grateful to you, Mr. Chairman, and Ranking Member Cruz for your support, as has been mentioned, of co-sponsoring the Smarter Sentencing Act. And I believe that Mr. Colson, if he were alive today, would applaud your work in that area.

Solitary confinement in theory is for the worst of the worst of the prisoners. However, data says otherwise.

A case in point is in Illinois, where a study was conducted and found that 85% of the prisoners were sent to disciplinary segregation for minor rule violations. Prisoners in these circumstances too often do not have their cases individually reviewed and looked at from oversight. There was an analogy given earlier about police officers and when they’re struck and other things. But it seems that the justice system does a much greater job on the outside of the walls where you have accountability and individual review than segregation has had historically.

And when it comes to the discussion about mental illness, regretfully, our family, friends, and neighbors suffering from mental illness are too often punished rather than treated.

And I would like to share the story of a man named Kevin, a young man that I have the privilege of knowing back in Michigan, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 11 years old and at 14 was pressured by a peer group to holding up a pizzeria with a toy gun. He wound up in an adult prison and spent nearly a year in segregation, who described his experience as an ongoing panic attack and felt as though he was stuck in an elevator that he needed to escape from. And he eventually tried to commit suicide as his escape, but instead of helping Kevin, the prison guards at the time simply increased his punishment because that was all that they were trained and knowledgable to do.

Too often our jails have become our country’s mental institutions and I believe that supporting bills such as the Community Mental Health Collaborative mental health act that Sen. Franken spoke of earlier will help provide resources to our states, law enforcement communities, as well as to our state corrections officials when they’re encountering and dealing with people who are suffering from mental health issues and mental illness.

I would like to share some promising alternatives and strategies from Justice Fellowship’s perspective of those have reduced the use of segregation.

That is first to use mission housing to target the need of prisoners with mental illness, developmental delays, and those at risk from sexual victimization.

Second, to use alternative responses to the disruptions outside of segregation.

Third is to increase the training for the prison on methods that promote positive social behavior within the Bureau of Prisons.

Jurisdictions employing these strategies have not only reduced their use of segregation but have also tracked concurrent reductions in the use of force on prisoners and the number of prison grievances.

I want to acknowledge that the ACA and other organizations have taken a very progressive stance on inviting in external and independent reviews as has the Bureau of Prisons.

And to this set of panel, whether it’s the Internal Revenue System [sic] or the Department of Justice, I believe that holding government accountable comes with no expiration date. And when the issues of human liberty and public safety are at stake, we must never give up the watch.

And I would, Senator, that this is not the end of the discussion today, and that these can be continued, including the work with the newly-authorized Charles Colson Task Force on Prison Reform.

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