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Is solitary confinement cruel and unusual? The US Senate hears testimony on the issue for the first time

Pelican Bay SHU

Julie Small/KPCC

The "Security Housing Unit" at Pelican Bay State Prison. Tuesday, US Senator Dick Durbin compared living in a SHU cell to being locked in a space capsule. California prison officials deny the SHU is "solitary confinement" — inmates there are allowed non-contact visits, mail, and interact with correctional staff.

Several U.S. senators took up an issue Tuesday morning that's never been considered before in Congress: the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. The hearing — for informational purposes only — came just a day after inmates at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo. filed a class action lawsuit alleging the prison mistreats its mentally ill inmates. And it comes weeks after inmates at California's Pelican Bay State Prison filed a separate federal suit, saying the state's prolonged use of Security Housing Units violates the Eight Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois scheduled the hearing before the Senate's Judiciary Committee. A number of people testified, all of them with personal experience in and around the country's most isolated, secure prison cells. A summary of who was there and the points they made: