Piper Kerman: Solitary confinement used to deter women prisoners from reporting abuse

Solitary confinement is often used as a punishment to deter female inmates from reporting sexual abuse by prison staff, said Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black”.

Kerman recalled how she was warned by inmates and staff about solitary confinement shortly after her arrival at the federal prison in Danbury, Conn., where she served 13 months.

“Very minor infractions could send you to the SHU [security housing unit]. They can then keep you there as long as they want under whatever conditions they choose,” she testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights on Feb. 25th.

Although Kerman was never placed in isolation, she shared “egregious examples of solitary confinement being used by prison officials to hide horrific systemic sexual abuse under their watch.”

“The terrible threat of isolation makes women afraid to report abuse and serves as a power disincentive to ask for help or justice,” she said.

One example she cited was that of an inmate who accused a guard of sexual abuse and was held in the SHU for months during the investigation. A friend of the inmate sent to the SHU told Kerman that “They shot her full of psych drugs. She blew up like a balloon. When they finally let out, she was a zombie. They do not play here.”

Kerman also shared the agonizing experience of Jeanne DiMola, an inmate with a history of mental illness who spent a year in solitary confinement. “I spent three-quarters of my time on a bunk with a blanket over my head in a fetal position rocking back and forth for comfort,” DiMola wrote. “I felt sorry that there wasn’t a rope to kill myself because everyday was worse than that.”

The tough conditions in the SHU and the severe impacts of prolonged isolation on the mental health of inmates make solitary confinement an effective threat to silence women from reporting abuse by prison staff, especially when inmates can be sent to the SHU for “their own safety” during investigations.

“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,” said Kerman. “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.”

Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels said the bureau has a “zero tolerance” policy on staff abuses against prisoners. He said prison staff try to prevent abuse by “ensuring that rounds are being made” and “ensuring that inmates are able to reach out” and report the abuse.

“They’re able to report any allegations to staff, and we also have a hotline number that the inmates are given and they can also report in that manner,” said Samuels, who stated that hotline information is “provided to the inmate population verbally during discussions as well as in writing.”

In addition, the national office conducts audits on facilities and quality control reviews. “We look at the operating practices wand procedures to ensure that we are following the expectations of our policies,” said Samuels. “These policies have been in place for decades. We’ve always had a zero tolerance for any type of activity and given our staff the values to carry it out.”

Samuels also emphasized the bureau takes “all allegations seriously.”

“Those individuals are removed from general population as well as the individuals who have been victimized to ensure that we’re looking at the safety and security issues on both sides. And we ensure that the investigation relative to the allegation that we’re doing it in a timely manner, and holding these individuals accountable…We do not support nor do we want anyone victimizing others to not being held accountable for their actions,” said Samuels. “If the investigation leads to the individual being charged, which we refer all of these issues to the FBI, then they move in and they do their investigation. And ultimately, it’s determined whether or not a crime has been committed, and we believe in ensuring that these individuals are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

However, Kerman maintained that the Bureau of Prisons is not doing enough to prevent and prosecute abuses by staff.

“I believe that in every women’s prison and jail that sexual abuse of women and girls by staff is a problem,” said Kerman. “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.”

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