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

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.
Julie Small/KPCC

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:

Sen Dick Durbin

Durbin has been concerned for some time that the US leads the world in its use of solitary confinement. He's particularly concerned that people who are mentall ill and pose "behavioral problems" to prison staff, end up in isolation. By his count, 60 percent of prison suicides take place in isolation units. Durbin is further concerned that once in solitary confinement, inmates literally go crazy, and there's little monitoring of their mental states and little chance of their being treated before they're released back into the world.

Key quote: "We can no longer turn our backs and slam the door on these prisoners." 


Federal Bureau of Prisons Chief Charles Samuels

The federal prison system has perhaps the most secure cells in the world in its supermax in Florence, Colorado. There, according to Samuels, there are 490 inmates in the highest security units, where inmates spend 23 hours a day alone and generally have contact only with correctional officers. Systemwide, Samuels estimates about 7 percent of all federal prisoners are in various levels of isolation units. Samuels said that characterizing life in these cells as "solitary confinement" is misleading, since inmates interact with correctional officers and some have (non-contact) visits with family. He also defended their use: the federal prison system is currently 40 percent over capacity and has record inmate to staff ratios. The inmates in these cells, he said, present safety threats to staff and other inmates. Most inmates, he said, roam fairly freely in prison. The only way that can continue, he said, is if those who threaten others' safety are removed from the general population.

Key quote: "The inmates who've achieved this status are the most disruptive, most challenging for the Bureau of Prisons, but we work to do everything we can to get them out of that status."


Mississippi prisons head Christopher Epps

Epps has presided over the Mississippi Department of Corrections during a time when it has drastically reduced its use of isolation cells. Epps testified that the issue was humanitarian and practical, as isolation cells cost about twice as much as regular cells. 

Key quote: "They're high priced real estate." 


Exonerated Texas Death Row inmate Anthony Graves

A number of people testified about the psychological effects of solitary confinement. Graves, who experienced it himself, said that people go crazy when they're locked up along for too long. He described inmates who started mutilating themselves (I won't go into the unpleasant details, but it's pretty graphic), talking to themselves, getting paranoid, and having trouble sleeping.

Key quote: "Go live there for 30 days," he said to those who doubt solitary's psychological harm.