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June 19, 2012

Lots of notable (and overdue) questioning of extreme solitary confinement

I am intrigued and pleased to see more attention now finally being given to the severe depravation and related horrors of extreme isolation in prisons.  Two big new developments here are:

Here are highlights of both developments via the NYT report:

The hearing, held before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, represents the first time lawmakers on Capitol Hill have taken up the issue of solitary confinement, a form of imprisonment that many human rights advocates believe violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” and that has drawn increasing scrutiny in recent months in the United States and internationally.

The practice, which is widespread in American prisons, has also been the target of a growing number of lawsuits, including a class-action suit filed on Monday on behalf of mentally ill inmates held in solitary at ADX, the federal super-maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo. Last month, civil rights lawyers representing prisoners held for more than 10 years in isolation at Pelican Bay State Prison in California filed suit in federal court, arguing that solitary confinement is unconstitutional.

Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the assistant majority leader, began the hearing — which he said had the support of both Democratic and Republican committee members — by noting that more prisoners are held in isolation in the United States than in any other democracy and that about half of all prison suicides occur among inmates in solitary confinement.

“We can have a just society, and we can be humane in the process,” Mr. Durbin said. “We can punish wrongdoers, and they should be punished under our system of justice, but we don’t have to cross that line.” He said he was working on legislation to encourage changes in the way solitary confinement is used.

With more than 250 people packed into two rooms, the hearing was “one of the best attended of the year,” Mr. Durbin said, an indication “of the fact that the time is due for us to have this conversation about where we’re going.” Over the course of two hours, the senators heard testimony about the effects of solitary confinement and the steps taken in Mississippi and several other states to reduce the number of prisoners kept in isolation.

But the hearing also included a testy exchange between Mr. Durbin and Charles E. Samuels Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who defended the use of solitary confinement for inmates who pose a threat to the safety of staff members or other inmates.

“Do you believe you could live in a box like that 23 hours a day, a person who goes in normal, and it wouldn’t have any negative impact on you?” Mr. Durbin asked, pointing to a life-size replica of a solitary confinement cell that had been set up in the hearing room.

“Our objective is always to have the individual to freely be in the general population,” Mr. Samuels responded.

“I’m trying to zero in on a specific question,” Mr. Durbin said, adding, “Do you believe, based on your life experience in this business, that that is going to have a negative impact on an individual?”

“I would say I don’t believe it is the preferred option,” Mr. Samuels conceded, “and that there would be some concerns with prolonged confinement.”

Some recent and older related posts:

June 19, 2012 at 10:53 PM | Permalink


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Many of these inmates will deal drugs, rape and kill given the chance to interact with other inmates and have already done so. What possible solution is there other than locking them in solitary or killing them?

Posted by: MikeinCT | Jun 20, 2012 1:32:18 AM

Durbin is a know nothing, pro-criminal biased, rent seeking lawyer. He has no credibility. The alternative to solitary confinement is massive increases in staffing to contain these vicious predators. He wants bigger government and more Democrat voters.

He should be forced to work a shift as a prison guard, so he can show us how to manage them without solitary confinement.

Under 123D, none would be alive past their 18th birthday, and there would be no problem of cruelty of solitary confinement.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 20, 2012 5:39:54 AM

I am a University of Virginia educated law grad who practiced in Atlanta for 13 years, before spending 8 years as a guest of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I spent 3 of those years in 23+ hour per day lockdown in the Special Housing Unit, although I am not a violent person and have never done anything violent in or out of prison. My disciplinary offenses included insolence to staff and helping other inmates with their legal problems (for free), as is supposed to be permitted by Supreme Court decisions and written BOP Program Statements. The Bureau of Prisons doesn't like educated people (only 8% of inmates have even a college degree). The Special Housing Unit and isolation for 23+ hours per day in an 8' by 12' cell is vastly over-utilized in Federal prisons. In fact, at higher security level prisons, it is used as overflow housing, as there would not be enough bed space on the compound if fewer than 150 people were held in SHU. I have even seen a SHU so full that inmates were housed on mattresses on the floor of the law library cell in SHU, despite the fact that it doesn't have a toilet or sink! Inmates were told to pee in empty plastic water bottles and to defecate in plastic sandwich bags. Prolonged isolation of this kind causes serious psychological harm, so I am glad that Congress is finally investigating these rampant practices. Maybe now something will change for the better.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jun 21, 2012 11:19:12 AM

Inmates were told to pee in empty plastic water bottles and to defecate in plastic sandwich bags.

must be some soft inmates there. Anyone criminal enough to tell me that! would shortly find themselve DEAD when i used the plastic sandwich bag to choke thier ass to death!

I am not an animal and i won't be using a pooperscooper!

If the state is retarded and criminal enough to treat me like an animal i'd BE ONE! and that means if i get a shot at my keeper they are DEAD!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 22, 2012 11:24:32 AM

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