WASHINGTON — Keeping prisoners locked alone in tiny cells 23 hours a day is inhumane, costly and ineffective, a key U.S. senator said Tuesday in a hearing about ways to revamp the practice of solitary confinement in American prisons.
The hearing before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee came after a lawsuit last month against solitary-confinement policies at a California prison and a widespread hunger strike against that state’s use of the practice.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said he was drafting legislation designed to overhaul the nation’s solitary confinement rules, even as the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons defended the system.
During solitary confinement, the most disruptive prisoners are locked up from 22 to 24 hours a day, typically in windowless cells about the size of a king-sized bed, testified Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Former prisoner Anthony Graves, who spent more than 18 years in solitary confinement before he was exonerated of a murder conviction, said his treatment was “torture,” “madness” and the “total disrespect of human dignity.”
Graves said he lived in an 8- by 12-foot “cage” where he slept, ate and defecated. He ate dehydrated food that sometimes included rat feces, lived without any physical contact and watched fellow inmates deliberately mutilate themselves, go insane or commit suicide.
“I would watch guys come to prison totally sane and in three years they don’t live in the real world anymore,” Graves testified. “I know a guy who would sit in the middle of the floor, rip his sheet up, wrap it around himself and light it on fire.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., repeatedly asked the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Charles Samuels, whether he thought there were any negative effects to such treatment. Samuels said it wasn’t the “preferred option,” and cited a 2010 Colorado Department of Corrections study that he said had found no negative effects from solitary confinement.
Haney, who helped lead the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, which demonstrated the psychological impact of confinement on prisoners and guards, said that living in what he called extreme, inhumane and “zoolike” conditions often caused serious mental illness and was a danger to public safety.
About 95 percent of prisoners in solitary confinement ultimately are released back to society; Haney charged that the system lacks meaningful transitional services and formerly isolated prisoners are more prone to violence after they’re released.
Prison officials are supposed to monitor prisoners’ mental health and move them to psychiatric wards if they exhibit signs of illness. Samuels said the system had an extensive network of such officials and an intensive psychological screening process before prisoners were placed in solitary confinement. He said that only the most dangerous prisoners, who posed a threat to other inmates or guards, were placed in solitary confinement and that the number was very small.
Christopher B. Epps, the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, said his efforts to revamp that state’s prisons had reduced the number of segregated inmates by 75 percent.
Durbin’s legislation, which has yet to be introduced, would cut the number of prisoners in solitary confinement, improve mental health screenings and give prisoners greater opportunities to challenge decisions.