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July 01, 2012

Senate hearing focuses on effects of solitary confinement

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, convened a hearing June 19 to look at the alarming increase in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons for those who don’t need to be there.

Durbin described the detrimental effects of isolating prisoners, noting that “approximately 50 percent of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement.” 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) explained that the hearing was necessary to evaluate the “serious human rights, fiscal, and public safety consequences” of solitary confinement and said there is mounting evidence that the use of such confinement may be counterproductive.

Despite its use as a regular “disciplinary tool,” Leahy said, “we rarely stop to think about whether the use of solitary confinement is actually effective.” He further explained that such confinement, originally a tool for “handling highly dangerous prisoners,” has become a method for “disruptive but not violent” behavior.

ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman, in a statement submitted to the subcommittee, echoed Durbin and Leahy’s concerns. “The costs – to the public fisc, to prisoners, and to the communities to which the vast majority of prisoners once isolated will return – are immense,” he said. Susman recommended that the subcommittee investigate how “the use of long-term solitary confinement may be restricted so as to promote the safe, efficient, and humane operations of prisons.”

He pointed out that for 40 years the ABA Criminal Justice Standards have guided policymakers and practitioners regarding criminal justice policy.

The 2011 Criminal Justice Standards on Treatment of Prisoners state that “segregated housing should be for the briefest term and under the least restrictive conditions practicable and consistent with the rationale for placement and with the progress achieved by the prisoner.” The standards also forbid “extreme isolation” in all instances.

The effects on prisoners kept is solitary confinement suggest “decreases in brain activity and can provoke serious psychiatric harms,” Susman explained, adding that  more difficult reentry and the likelihood or recidivism is increased for prisoners who spent time in isolation. Solitary confinement increases mental health issues, and prisoners in long-term separation require “effective monitoring and treatment of their mental health needs,” he said. 

One witness at the hearing, an exonerated death row inmate, said he was treated with a “total disrespect of human dignity.” He had “no physical contact with another human being for at least 10 of the 18 years” he was incarcerated. He explained that solitary confinement affects not only the inmate, but also “his family, his children, his siblings, and most importantly his mother.”

Emphasizing that the hearing was the first ever held on the issue of solitary confinement, Durbin indicated that he is working on legislation to address this “public-safety issue” and to encourage “reforms in the use of solitary confinement.”

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