Senate leaders consider solitary confinement reform for select prisoners

BY Ruth Tam  February 26, 2014 at 6:18 PM EST
A solitary confinement cell at Alcatraz Island. Photo by Flickr user Chris Gray.

A solitary confinement cell at Alcatraz Island. Photo by Flickr user Chris Gray.

Senate leaders held a committee hearing Tuesday to reassess solitary confinement in prisons for juvenile, pregnant and mentally ill patients.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) believes the thirty-year-old practice is a “human rights issue we can’t ignore.”

Durbin claimed 35 percent of juveniles in custody report being held in solitary confinement, leaving them at risk for depression and suicide. The overuse of solitary not only threatens prisoners, Durbin said, but the increase in violence inside and outside prisons presents “a serious threat to public safety.”

At a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, the Federal Bureau of Prisons director Charles Samuels, testified that of the bureau’s 215,000 inmates, only one juvenile and 197 women are confined in “restrictive housing.”

Solitary confinement should only be used in “the rarest of circumstances,” Samuels said. “We confine a significant number of dangerous people.”

Currently, 6.5 percent of the inmates Samuels oversees are in confinement.

He elaborated that 77 percent of inmates at a medium security level prison have a history of violence and over 50 percent have been sanctioned for violating prison rules. In order to run a safe and secure prison, Samuels said some offenders have to be removed but aren’t isolated in the way that outsiders assume.

Inmates still have daily interactions with staff member who track mental and physical health, he said. Inmates also can contact other inmates, family and friends.

The subcommittee heard from former inmates including Piper Kerman, the author of the popular prison memoir turned Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black.”

According to Kerman, female prisoners — the majority of whom serve for nonviolent offenses — are the fastest growing population in the criminal justice system.

“The terrible threat of isolation makes women afraid to report abuse as a powerful disincentive to ask for help or justice,” said Kerman.

“We take for granted how we interact with other people on a normal, healthy basis,” said Dr. Craig Haney, who testified for a similar Senate committee in 2012 and has conducted research on solitary confinement for 30 years. “People in isolated environments can start to feel anxiety when they’re actually around other people and sometimes these anxiety disorders persist after they are released.”

A recent study of New York inmates says that inmates sent to solitary confinement are seven times more likely to hurt or kill themselves than those who aren’t.

“They can experience a loss of identity and their sense of social self,” Haney said. “They act out in a way of provoking a response from the outside world that demonstrates they’re still there.

While investigative reports have questioned the effects of solitary confinement cells, some researchers struggle to find a concrete link between solitary confinement and a decline in psychological health.

For Dr. Peter Seudfeld, a University of British Columbia psychology professor who specializes in enclosed spaces, he found that the majority of inmates in his solitary confinement study didn’t find the experience negative.

“They said living in a prison population was very stressful and they had to be very alert,” Seudfeld told NewsHour. “If they made an enemy, they would be attacked. They broke rules so they would be put in solitary to be safe.

Seudfeld’s research was published over 30 years ago. A more recent longitudinal study of the psychological effects of administrative segregation from 2010 did not see a rise in psychological disorders in inmates after time in solitary confinement.

One of the researchers, Maureen L. O’Keefe, is employed by the Colorado Department of Corrections and didn’t comment on the report and Dr. Kelli K. Klebe did not immediately return a request for comment.