On the Hill: AHA Submits Testimony on Solitary Confinement at Senate Hearing

On February 25, 2014, I attended a hearing held by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights that was titled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences.” The hearing, led by Senator Richard Durban (D-IL), who for years pushed to reform the federal prison system, was meant to be a continuation of a similar briefing held in 2012 by the same subcommittee.

The American Humanist Association has worked on the issue of solitary confinement as part of our larger work on civil rights, submitting testimony at the 2012 hearing and again at this most recent hearing. In that testimony, AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt stated that “solitary confinement has cost us financially, as the daily cost per inmate in a solitary confinement unit far exceeds the costs of housing an inmate in a lower security facility… Further, we must not neglect the larger public safety impact. The negative effects of prolonged solitary confinement harm our communities, as demonstrated by the fact that prisoners who are freed directly from solitary confinement cells are significantly more likely to commit crimes again.”

The hearing focused on the psychological and practical impacts of solitary confinement, detailing how the practice impacts prisoners and the federal prison system as a whole. Senator Durbin, who advocated against the use of solitary confinement especially when it is applied to minors, pregnant women, and those with mental disorders, stressed at the hearing that the United States has the highest per capita rate of incarceration. According to Durbin, 25 percent of prisoners worldwide are held in U.S. jails, even though the United States makes up only 5 percent of the global population. Furthermore, Durbin exposed the fact that the cost of solitary confinement is almost three times as much as holding a prisoner in general population. Even more disturbing was his statement that half of all prison suicides happen in solitary confinement, and that nearly 35 percent of all juvenile inmates have been held in solitary confinement at least once during their imprisonment.

It is for these reasons that Senator Durbin has worked with federal prison officials to conduct the first independent assessment of the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners and whether its continued use is merited in federal and state prisons, which will likely be completed by the end of 2014.

One of the officials who testified at the hearing and is intimately involved with the use of solitary confinement and the independent review of the practice was Charles E. Samuels Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In addition to detailing the process required for an inmate to be committed to solitary confinement, or “restrictive housing” as he called it, Samuels also stated that our federal prison system is 32 percent over capacity, and that  maximum security prisons are 51 percent over capacity. While Samuels defended the use of solitary confinement because of its benefits in maintaining security in volatile prison environments, he stated that as a result of the subcommittee’s efforts to limit the use of the practice, the Federal Bureau of Prisons had decreased the number of prisoners in solitary confinement by 25 percent in last two years. Samuels also mentioned that the estimates of the number of prisoners in solitary confinement are often exaggerated by advocates and the media, stating that only a tiny minority of federal prisoners were in restrictive housing.

Solitary confinement seems to be one of the few issues on which a bipartisan legislative solution could be passed; the ranking Republican member of this subcommittee, the notoriously conservative Texas Senator Ted Cruz, seemed receptive to the plight of prisoners who had been relegated to restrictive housing. While some time remains before the independent assessment of this practice is completed, it appeared to me that the political groundwork is being laid in order to drastically limit its use in the near future.