Senate Attempts to Reassess Solitary Confinement

Categories: Prison
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Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing to reassess the consequences of solitary confinement in prisons. 

The hearing opened with a video, playing testimony from a young woman whose 17-year-old brother committed suicide after being held in solitary confinement in an adult prison for two months. Senator Dick Durbin, who presided over the hearing, noted that 50 percent of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement as he gestured toward a life-size replica of a solitary confinement cell stationed in the hearing room.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons director, Charles Samuels, evaded pointed questions about the mental health effects of solitary confinement, as well as the staffing capacity of mental health professionals working specifically with prisoners in isolation. Samuels squirmed under probes from lawmakers, giving vague responses or pleading ignorance to inquiries of statistics or studies undertaken to review the long-term effects of solitary confinement.

When Senator Al Franken said that he wanted to know if inmates would present a greater danger to society as a result of being locked up in solitary confinement, exasperation was palpable in his follow up statement: "I don't think I'll get a good definitive answer for that."

After Samuels' testimony, four additional witnesses testified about the detrimental physical and psychological effects of solitary confinement, including Anthony Graves who was exonerated after 18 years of imprisonment on Texas' death row. 

Graves spent 10 of his 18 years on death row in solitary confinement. He described the conditions of his cell and watching once fully-functioning inmates descend into insanity in isolation. Painting vivid pictures of men setting themselves on fire, smearing themselves in feces or slitting their own throats, Graves testified that his own mental health had been irreversibly damaged as a result. 

"Solitary confinement makes our criminal justice system criminal," he said. "It is inhumane and by its design, it is driving men insane."

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