By William Fisher
America’s sick economy has given birth to all kinds of unintended consequences – ranging from the middle class using food stamps to Washington legislators engaging in inartfully faux Kabuki Theater to persuade us voters that unnecessary costs are actually being cut.
Most of what goes on in Congress these days is unreconstructed showbusiness, not governance. The Imperial Darrel Issa is a master at merging the two art forms. This form of art is no doubt much appreciated by viewers of Fox news, who are quite content in their fact-free zone.
But every once in a while there appears a Congressional hearing on a subject that’s real. That’s really real!
And so it was that last week a Senate Committee held a Congressional hearing on a subject never before brought before our lawmakers: Solitary Confinement (SC). And adding to the anticipation of hearing graphic, gory testimony from actual victims of SC, this hearing was plonked down in the Senate in the middle of a Presidential campaign year.
A full compliment of witnesses stood ready to weigh in: Charles Samuels, Director Federal Bureau of Prisons; Commissioner Christopher Epps, Mississippi Department of Corrections; Stuart M. Andrews, Jr, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP; Anthony Graves, Founder, Anthony Believes; Craig Haney Professor of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz; and Pat Nolan, President, Justice Fellowship/Prison Fellowship Ministries.
This reporter wondered why. Prism explored the issue with various lawyers associated with the multiple campaigns to drastically reduce solitary confinement. This hearing hadn’t been hyped by the big-hitters scheduled to testify; there were no big hitters. Nor were there huge campaign donors among the witness panel. And of course from witnesses one might have anticipated came such words as cruel and inhuman, Christian morality, expensive, wasteful, necessary and “had it coming.”
These were the words that popped up in virtually every solitary confinement discussion over the last Century. No surprise here, except –
This reporter found some of the participants beginning to use words that until recently were rarely a part of any solitary confinement discussion: risk-reward ratios, less expensive alternatives, budget-neutral, development of new incentives to encourage better behavior. And so forth. The conversation sounded more like that of a bunch of accountants than a panel of penologists, criminologists, and psychologists.
So was Prism hearing a new approach where economy-speak was trumping the usual talk of conventional high-cost prisoner discipline? And was the high cost the product of shrinking prison budgets at state levels caused by the mandate for states to balance their annual budgets at a time when what little cash there was around was being used to plug other holes?
Most of those Prism talked with did not expect either the vocabulary or the techniques of solitary confinement to change quickly. In Government, it never does. But there seemed to be a clear sign of hope in the air.
Much of that hopefulness came from the Chairman, Dick Durbin. It was from his words that Prism concluded that this hearing was being held because Dick Durbin believed in it. Because he had believed in it for years. Because he saw injustice and was determined to try to fix it. One rarely finds such straight-forwardness in the Senate, where members and their staffs are more likely to be talking about legislative marks-ups, budgets, and payfors.
Looking at Durbin, there could be little doubt – even among the jaded reporters covering yet another hearing – that the Senator was a true believer.
Durbin ran through some of the stats. Today in the United States, he said, more than 2.3 million people are imprisoned. This is – by far – the highest per capita rate of prisoners in the world. And African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, while Hispanics are incarcerated almost twice as much. These numbers translate into human rights issues that we cannot ignore.
“That’s why I held a hearing on mental illness in prison in 2009. That’s why I authored the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine
Amy Lettig, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, agrees. She told Prism, “I think you certainly can attribute some of the current rethinking of criminal justice policies to the economic crisis in the states. There are some very real budget tradeoffs that have to made now and if the choice is locking up someone else’s kid or educating your own, what’s the wise choice?”
She added, “But it’s more than cost. We’ve reached a tipping point where it’s clear that our current policies aren’t sustainable and they don’t work. As a result, we see both conservatives and liberals across the country looking at the enormous costs of our current prison system and deciding that taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth because prisons are enormously costly, they generally do not rehabilitate anyone, and they frequently make people worse off. For example, both Texas and New York have recently decided to provide alternatives to incarceration, such as drug treatment in the community, and both have seen lower crime rates as a result.”
The faith community, she points out, “has always played a key role in speaking out for prisoners and reminding Americans of their moral obligations to fellow human beings. Many people of faith are also now speaking out about the wastefulness of our criminal justice policies. Because many faith groups are active both inside the prisons and in the communities they have a unique vantage point to say that our current policies don’t work, they aren’t cost-effective, and they contradict principles of faith for many religions.”
Listen to the testimony of Anthony Graves.
My name is Anthony Graves and I am death row exonoree number 138. I was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Texas back in 1992, where my nightmare began. Like all death row inmates, I was kept in solitary confinement. I lived under some of the worst conditions imaginable with the filth, the food, the total disrespect of human dignity. I lived under the rules of a system that is literally driving men out of their minds. I was one week away from my 27th birthday when I was arrested, and this emotional torture took place for the next 18.5 years. I survived the torture by believing in my innocence and hoping that they would make it right. My life was saved, but those 18.5 years were no way to live.
I lived in a small 8 by 12 foot cage. I had a steel bunk bed, with a very thin plastic mattress and pillow that you could only trade out once a year. By the time a year comes around, you've been virtually sleeping on the steel itself. I have back problems as a result. I had a steel toilet and sink that were connected together, and it was positioned in the sight of male and female officers. They would walk the runs and I would be in plain view while using the toilet.
I had a small shelf that I was able to use as a desk to write on. This was the same shelf that I ate at. There was a very small window up at the top of the back wall. In order to see the sky or the back of the building you would have to roll your plastic mattress up to stand on. I had concrete walls that were always peeling with old dull paint. It's the image of an old abandoned one-room project apartment.
I lived behind a steel door that had two small slits in it, the space replaced with iron mesh wire, which was dirty and filthy. Those slits were cut out to communicate with the officers that were right outside your door. There was a slot that's called a pan hole and that's how you would receive your food. I had to sit on my steel bunk like a trained dog while the officer delivered my food tray. He would take a steel crow bar and stick it into the metal lock on the pan hole, it would fall open, which then allowed the officer to place your tray in the slot. Afterward, he then steps back, which was the signal for me to get off the bunk and retrieve my food. This is no different from the way we train our pets.
The food lacks the proper nutrition, because it is either dehydrated when served to you or perhaps you'll find things like rat feces or a small piece of broken glass. There is no real medical care. I had no television, no telephone, and most importantly, I had no physical contact with another human being for at least 10 of the 18 years I was incarcerated.
I was subjected to sleep deprivation. I would hear the clanging of metal doors throughout the night, an officer walking the runs and shining his flashlight in your eyes, or an inmate kicking and screaming because he's losing his mind.
Solitary confinement does one thing, it breaks a man's will to live and he ends up deteriorating. He's never the same person again. Then his mother comes to see her son sitting behind plexiglass, whom she hasn't been able to touch in years, and she has to watch as her child deteriorates right in front of her eyes. This madness has a ripple effect. It doesn't just affect the inmate; it also affects his family, his children, his siblings and most importantly his mother.
Senator Durbin was quick to outline what the hearing was all about.
He continued: “The United States holds far more prisoners in solitary than any other democratic nation. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2005, U.S. prisons held 81,622 people in some kind of restricted housing. In my home state of Illinois, 56% of the prison population has spent time in segregation.
“Solitary confinement is also extremely costly. For example, Tamms, Illinois’s only supermax prison, has by far the highest per prisoner cost of any Illinois prison – $61,522 in Fiscal Year 2010 – as compared to an average of $22,043 for other prisons.
“We didn’t always use solitary confinement at such a high rate. But in the 1980’s, states began creating expensive “supermax” prisons designed to hold people in isolation on a mass scale. These supermaxes, just like the crack cocaine sentencing laws, were part of the tough-on-crime policies that seemed to make sense at the time.
“But we now know that solitary confinement isn’t just used for the worst of the worst. Instead, we are seeing an alarming increase in isolation for those who don’t need to be there – and for vulnerable groups like immigrants, children, LGBT inmates, supposedly for their own protection.
“As a result of the work we have done preparing for this first-of-its-kind hearing, I am working on legislation to encourage reforms in the use of solitary confinement. We can no longer slam the cell door and turn our backs on the impact our policies have on the incarcerated and the safety of our nation.”
He described solitary confinement cells at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison: “The cells are windowless; the walls are white concrete. ...The overall effect is one of stark sterility and unremitting monotony. Inmates can spend years without ever seeing any aspect of the outside world except for a small patch of sky. One inmate fairly described [it] as being ‘like a space capsule where one is shot into space and left in isolation.’”
“Imagine spending 23 hours a day in a cell like that – for days, months, years – with no window to the outside world and very little, if any, human contact.”
And it appeared that everyone in the room – including the Republicans – believed his sincerity.
Since its opening in 1995, the Tamms supermax has been an enormous burden to Illinois taxpayers and done irreparable harm to prisoners by its use of long-term solitary confinement.
“Over the years there’s been a great deal of controversy around Tamms with family members, concerned citizens, advocates and lawyers repeatedly questioning the use of long-term solitary confinement in that facility. There are also courageous survivors like Brian Nelson who’s spoken out about the soul-crushing experience of solitary confinement. And high profile cases of severely mentally ill men being places in Tamms for years and years on end.
Actions against TAMMS and California's Pelican Bay are an outgrowth of the growing recognition that solitary confinement has shifted from a short-term, emergency measure to a long-term prison management strategy where human beings spend years and even decades in isolation, Lawyer Fettig told Prism. A federal lawsuit seeking to end the prolonged use of solitary confinement in California was filed in May by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. Lawyers propose the case as a class-action on behalf of inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison who have been in solitary confinement for more than 10 years.
"Forty years ago solitary confinement was not a pervasive problem in the United States – indeed it had been largely discredited here a century ago. Pelican Bay, Tamms and the Congressional Hearing are part of a growing awareness that we’ve gone too far, spent too much, and caused too much harm. Congress, the courts, and the Executive branch are now being engaged to reign these practices in and ensure sensible and humane alternatives," she said.
Among those giving testimony was Charles Samuels, who is the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The federal system is known for its abuse and usage of solitary confinement. Samuels’s predecessor resigned recently to become an executive with Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s leading for-profit prison system.
Samuels was unable to give an estimate of how many prisoners in the federal system are in solitary confinement; however, in 2010, out of 210,000 prisoners in the federal prison system there were over 11,000 prisoners in solitary. Samuels spoke of research on solitary confinement, which had been debunked.
Lawyer Fettig told Prism, “I’ve heard from a number of people who were surprised by the BOP’s apparent lack of preparation for the hearing and the lack of transparency in their response to questions from the Senate.”
She added, “Unfortunately, lack of transparency and accountability for BOP’s segregation and solitary practices is a very large problem. Indeed there is a dearth of data on solitary confinement at all levels – local, state and federal. We hope that one outcome of last week’s hearing will be a national mandate requiring mandatory reporting on solitary confinement policies, practices, and outcomes. The public has a right to know what’s being done in their name behind bars, and right now they simply don’t have access to that information.”
This article originally appeared on the pages of Prism Magazine.