WASHINGTON – After listening to Damon Thibodeaux‘s struggle to remain sane for 15 years alone in a 8-by-10 foot cell,legislators called on prison authorities to halt the use of solitary confinement as a means of punishment.The Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution,Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing Tuesday to weigh the human rights and public safety consequences of solitary confinement. Committee chairman Sen. Dick Durbin,D-Ill., said solitary confinement practices in many prisons are inhumane.
“It’s torture,pure and simple,no matter what else we want to call it,” Thibodeaux said.
In 1997, Thibodeaux,39, was placed in solitary confinement 23 hours a day at Louisiana’s Angola Prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Thibodaux said he interacted with the outside world on five occasions by the time he was released in 2012.
Thibodeaux testified that releasing prisoners from solitary confinement to the general public is dangerous and therapeutic resources should be available before and after departure.
“I have suffered the long-term effects from solitary confinement,including difficulty engaging and speaking with people on some occasions,” Thibodeaux said.
Thibodeaux said solitary confinement does not rehabilitate prisoners but does the opposite. He saw men lose their minds from a lack of mental stimulation.
A 2006 study published in the Washington University Journal of Law and Policy showed that isolation can cause psychological disturbances to people who were not previously mentally ill. Those disturbances include hallucinations,delusions,panic attacks and obsessions.
Piper Kerman, author of the book based on her prison experience, Orange is the New Black, was placed in a holding cell during her 13-month stay in a Connecticut federal prison. She testified that prison guards used solitary confinement as a means of basic punishment rather than as a method for protecting others.
“I felt sorry that there wasn’t a rope to kill myself because every day was worse than the last,” Kerman said. “Very minor infractions would send you into ‘the shoe.’ They could then keep you there as long as they want under any conditions they choose.”
Kerman’s memoirs were spun off into a Netflix show. She now serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association.
Rick Raemisch,executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, said at the hearing that prisoners are less violent in prison when they have access to the outside world. Raemisch said 3.4 percent of Colorado prisoners are currently in solitary confinement,about half as many as in 2011. He plans to further decrease that number later this year.
Charles E. Samuels Jr.,director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons,said his agency has a system to monitor prisoners in “special housing units” so only those who are a serious threat are placed in isolation.
Durbin said he’s working to create the 146-acre Thomas Correctional Facility Center in Illinois “to assure that all prisoners are treated humanely.”
Reach reporter Cathryn Walker at [email protected] or 202–326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.