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National Religious Campaign Against Torture Testimony Before Senate Judiciary on Solitary Confinement 2012

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Testimony of
Linda Gustitus, President, and Rev. Richard Killmer, Executive Director,
National Religious Campaign Against Torture,
Before the
Senate Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights
Hearing on Reassessing Solitary Confinement
June 19, 2012
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to
submit testimony on behalf of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture
(NRCAT) concerning the harmful use of solitary confinement in our nation’s federal
prisons, jails, and detention centers. Due to the negative fiscal and public safety
consequences of solitary confinement, NRCAT is encouraged that a growing number of
states across the nation are reassessing the practice and implementing policies to limit its
use. The Subcommittee’s consideration of this issue at the federal level is opportune and
urgent. It is due time that we learn from the states’ successful reforms. We are confident
that a transparent evaluation of the impact of the federal system’s use of solitary
confinement on prisoners, correctional staff, our budget, and society at large, will lead
you to conclude that the pervasive use of prolonged solitary confinement is wrong both
morally and economically.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture is a coalition of religious
organizations joined together to ensure that the United States does not engage in torture
or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of anyone, including U.S. prisoners, inmates,
and detainees. Since its formation in January 2006, more than 300 religious
organizations have joined NRCAT, including representatives from the Catholic,
Protestant, Orthodox Christian, evangelical Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Quaker,
Unitarian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and Sikh communities. NRCAT member
organizations include denominations and faith groups, national religious organizations,
regional religious organizations, and congregations.
The faith-based members that belong to NRCAT do not question whether
individuals convicted of certain crimes deserve to be sent to prison. Rather, we are
united in opposing treatment that is so severe that it violates our values as a nation, as
people of faith, and as fellow human beings. This opposition has inspired us, along with
people of faith and religious leaders across the nation, to participate in a 23-hour fast,
symbolizing the 23 hours per day that tens of thousands of prisoners, inmates, and
detainees, are warehoused in solitary confinement. As we have seen in recent prisoner
hunger strikes in California and Virginia, refusing food is one of the few means prisoners
1

have to protest their conditions in solitary confinement. We are fasting for change on
their behalf, asking for divine intervention that “drives out fear.” Today at noon, we will
break bread together immediately after your hearing and pray that this will not be the end
of your efforts to evaluate and reform this inhumane and destructive practice.
The 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons (hereinafter
“the Commission”), co-chaired by Nicholas Katzenbach, former Attorney General under
President Lyndon Johnson, and John Gibbons, former Chief Judge for the 3rd Circuit
Court of Appeals, produced a report that described life in a supermax prison like this:
Conditions in segregation vary across the country. In the most severe
conditions—which are more likely to occur in disciplinary segregation
units and super-max prisons—individuals are locked down 23 or 24 hours
a day in small cells between 48 and 80 square feet with no natural light, no
control over the electric light in their cells, and no view outside of their
cells. They have no contact with other prisoners—even verbal—and no
meaningful contact with staff. They may be able to spend up to an hour
every other day alone in a concrete exercise pen. Though there are some
exceptions, access to books and writing materials is limited; radio and
television are often banned; calls to and visits with family are very
infrequent, when permitted at all. 1
The faith groups and member organizations of NRCAT believe that solitary
confinement is not only inhumane, but that in certain circumstances, it can rise to the
level of torture.
As you already know, the universally recognized definition of torture is in the
United Nations Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment
adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1984 and signed by the United States in 1988
and ratified by the U.S. in 1994. It defines torture as any act by which,
. . . severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally
inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third
person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third
person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating
or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on
discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or
at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official
or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or
suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions. 2

1

COMM’N ON SAFETY AND ABUSE IN AMERICA’S PRISONS, VERA INSTITUTE OF JUSTICE, CONTRONTING
CONFINEMENT at 57 (2006), http://www.vera.org/download?file=2845/Confronting_Confinement.pdf
[hereinafter Commission].
2
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, art. 1(1),
Dec. 10 1984, 1465 U.N.T.S. 85.

2

In a 2011 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez,
cited 15 days or more of solitary confinement as “prolonged solitary confinement,”
noting that some of the psychological effects caused by isolation become irreversible at
that point. 3 The severe pain and suffering caused by solitary confinement is clearly
documented throughout history within literary, scientific, and legal sources.
Many Americans don’t realize that the harm of solitary confinement is,
unfortunately, a lesson we have to relearn. In 1829, the Eastern Pennsylvania
Penitentiary opened. 4 It was called a penitentiary because the enlightened voices of the
day, including Dr. Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, and key Quaker leaders, wanted
inmates to spend time in isolation so they could think deeply about their crimes and
become penitent. 5 However, instead of becoming remorseful while in solitary
confinement, the prisoners developed serious mental health problems, with many going
insane. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited the Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary and
wrote, “The system here is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it . . .
to be cruel and wrong. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the
brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” 6 Recognizing this severe
psychological harm, the Quakers apologized for devising solitary confinement cells.
Unfortunately, today, the same “daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain”
that Dickens referenced is painstakingly evident in the countless letters sent to friends,
family members, and organizations like NRCAT, from the tens of thousands of prisoners
held within solitary confinement cells. Describing the impact of solitary confinement,
one prisoner wrote:
[P]rolonged isolation tears at my soul, mind, and ability to cope. The cell
collapses on top of me. I don’t breathe. I can’t breathe from crushing
anxiety, literally. I utilize all coping mechanisms I know, and some
conjure up to no avail. The end result is self-mutilation to escape or an
attempt on my life. I can do fine for five, six or eight months. Then all
hell inside my head breaks loose. I’m not choosing to be suicidal. It’s an
unseen force which compels me to try to escape by any means. 7
Many studies have documented the detrimental psychological and physiological
effects of long-term segregation. 8 Nationally recognized expert Dr. Stuart Grassian was
3

The Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading
treatment or punishment, Interim Report, ¶ 15, delivered to the General Assembly, U.N. Doc. A/66/268
(Aug. 5, 2011).
4
Laura Sullivan, Timeline: Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, July 26, 2006,
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5579901.
5
Id.
6
CHARLES DICKENS, AMERICAN NOTES 146 (Fromm Int’l 1985) (1842).
7
Citing a letter from a prisoner during video interview by Steve Martin, Board Member, National Religious
Campaign Against Torture, with Shaheed Omar in Roanoke, VA (January 10, 2012).
8
See e.g., Stuart Grassian & Nancy Friedman, Effects of Sensory Deprivation in Psychiatric Seclusion and
Solitary Confinement, 8 INT’L J.L. & PSYCHIATRY 49 (1986); Craig Haney & Mona Lynch, Regulating
Prisons of the Future: A Psychological Analysis of Supermax and Solitary Confinement, 23 NEW YORK

3

one of the pioneers in researching the harmful psychological effects of solitary
confinement in super-max prisons in the early 1980s. 9 In a statement submitted to the
Commission, Dr. Grassian documented that nearly a third of the prisoners he evaluated
experienced perceptual distortions, in which objects appear to change size or form. 10
This is particularly alarming, he noted, since this symptom is more commonly associated
with neurological illnesses, such as brain tumors, than with primary psychiatric illness. 11
Additionally, Dr. Craig Haney, social psychologist and Professor of Psychology
at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who will address the Subcommittee today,
found extraordinarily high rates of symptoms of psychological trauma among prisoners
held in long-term solitary confinement in his systematic analysis of prisoners held in
super-max prison. 12 More than four out of five of those evaluated suffered from feelings
of anxiety and nervousness, headaches, troubled sleep, and lethargy or chronic tiredness,
and over half complained of nightmares, heart palpitations, and fear of impending
nervous breakdowns. 13 Nearly half suffered from hallucinations and perceptual
distortions, and a quarter of them experienced suicidal ideation. 14
In 2011, the United States Supreme Court stated that “[p]risoners retain the
essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the
Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” 15 United States
case law has specifically recognized solitary confinement’s clear harm 16 and in certain
circumstances, has declared the practice as a violation of the Eighth Amendment. 17
Due to the overwhelming evidence that solitary confinement causes severe mental
pain and suffering, NRCAT believes prolonged solitary confinement is a violation of the
inherent God-given dignity in every human being. We concur with the Supreme Court
that this inherent dignity does not end at the prison gates.
Dr. Atul Gawande, surgeon and staff writer for the New Yorker, asked in his 2009
article, “Hellhole,” “If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have
UNIVERSITY REVIEW OF LAW AND SOCIAL CHANGE 477-570 (1997); Craig Haney, Mental Health Issues in
Long-Term Solitary and “Supermax” Confinement, 49 CRIME & DELINQ. 124 (2003).
9
See e.g., Stuart Grassian, Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement, 140 AM. J. PSYCHIATRY
1450 (1983).
10
Stuart Grassian, Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement, 22 JOURNAL OF LAW AND POLICY 325, at 335
(2006), http://law.wustl.edu/journal/22/p325grassian.pdf.
11
Id. at 338.
12
Haney, supra note 8.
13
Id. at 133.
14
Id. at 134.
15
Brown v. Plata, 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011).
16
See In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 168 (1890) (noting that prisoners held in isolation became violently
insane and suffered some irreparable mental damage).
17
See, e.g., Jones’El v. Berge, 164 F. Supp. 2d 1096 (W.D. Wis. 2001) (finding that placing mentally ill
prisoners in solitary confinement constitutes an Eighth Amendment violation); Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F.
Supp. 1146, 1265 (N.D. Cal. 1995) (equating placing mentally-ill inmates in solitary confinement to
placing asthmatics in a room with insufficient air); Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F. Supp. 2d 855, 915 (S.D. Tex.
1999).

4

confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end
up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other
country in history has?” 18
We believe that responding in fear, rather than objectively evaluating evidencebased best practices, is how we ended up here. Following an attack on two correctional
officers in 1983, Marion Prison in Illinois instituted a permanent lockdown of its entire
facility, in which all inmates were confined alone in their cells for 23 hours per day. 19
The use of solitary confinement has increased dramatically since then. In 1989,
California built Pelican Bay Prison to house prisoners exclusively in solitary confinement
cells. Today, there are more than 40 super-max prisons across the country, including one
federal facility, the Administrative Maximum Facility (“ADX”), located in Florence,
Colorado.
The Commission noted that from 1995 to 2000, the growth rate of segregation
units significantly surpassed the prison growth rate overall: 40% compared to 28%. 20
Long-term isolation has become a default management tool, not only as a response to
violent behavior, but exceedingly as routine practice for minor rule infractions,
involuntary protection, and as a means of managing difficult inmates, particularly those
with mental illness. Walter Dickey, former secretary of the Wisconsin Department of
Corrections, testified before the Commission that his state’s super-max prison was filled
with the wrong people, “the young, the pathetic, the mentally ill.” 21 Similarly,
psychiatrist Stuart Grassian told the Commission, “Many of these people who are said to
be the ‘worst of the worst’ are simply the wretched of the earth. They’re sick people.” 22
The notion that prolonged solitary confinement is a necessary evil to maintain
safety in our prisons, jails and detention centers, is not rooted in evidence. A study
evaluating the impact of segregating prisoners in super-max facilities on prison violence
in three different states found that segregation did not decrease prisoner-on-prisoner
violence in any of the states and had divergent results on prisoner-on-staff assaults. 23
The demonstrated success of reducing the use of solitary confinement is evident
among several states that have proven that not only are there safe alternatives, but there
are more cost-effective options. 24 For example, Mississippi experienced a decline in
violence within its prisons after it drastically reduced its use of solitary confinement by

18

Atul Gawande, Hellhole, NEW YORKER, March 30, 2009, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/
30/090330fa_fact_gawande.
19
Sullivan, supra note 4.
20
Commission, supra note 1, at 53.
21
Commission, supra note 1, at 54.
22
Commission, supra note 1, at 60.
23
Chad Briggs, et al., The Effect of Supermaximum Security Prisons on Aggregate Levels of Institutional
Violence. 41 CRIMINOLOGY 1341 (2003).
24
Erica Goode, Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity, NEW YORK TIMES, March 10,
2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/us/rethinking-solitary-confinement.html.

5

85 percent in one super-max unit; Mississippi eventually closed the facility all together. 25
“The [segregated housing] environment . . . actually increases the levels of hostility and
anger among inmates and staff alike,” Donald Cabana, former Mississippi Warden, told
the Commission. 26 Maine and Colorado also have recently made significant reductions
in the use of solitary confinement without jeopardizing prison safety. 27 Maine
Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte explained, “Over time, the more
data we’re pulling is showing that what we’re doing now [through greatly reducing the
use of solitary confinement] is safer than what we were doing before.” 28
The daily cost per inmate of solitary confinement far exceeds lower security
facilities because individualized cells and increased correctional staff are required, and
prisoners do not contribute to the ongoing maintenance of the facility, such as cleaning,
cooking, and laundry. Indeed, Mississippi has reportedly saved $5 million by closing its
super-max unit. 29 Thanks to the transfer of more than 400 prisoners out of solitary
confinement in the past year, the Colorado Department of Corrections plans to close its
super-max unit, Centennial Correctional Facility, by 2013, which will result in savings of
$4.5 million. 30 Other states, strapped for cash, are taking note. Illinois Governor Pat
Quinn recently announced a proposal to close Illinois’ super-max prison, Tamms
Correctional Center, projecting annual savings of $21.6 million in the upcoming fiscal
year and $26.6 million each year thereafter.31
Not only do these states demonstrate that limiting the use of solitary confinement
can save taxpayer dollars and does not come at the cost of safety within prisons, we can
not sit idly by and neglect a much larger public safety concern. The effects of prolonged
solitary confinement impact all of us. In a recent interview about why Colorado reduced
its reliance on solitary confinement, Colorado Department of Corrections Executive
Director Tom Clements pointed out that 47 percent of those held in solitary confinement

25

Terry A. Kupers, et al., Beyond Supermax Administrative Segregation: Mississippi’s Experience
Rethinking Prison Classification and Creating Alternative Mental Health Programs, 36 CRIM. JUST. &
BEHAV. 1037, 1041 (2009); John Buntin, Exodus: How America’s Reddest State – And Its Most Notorious
Prison – Became a Model of Corrections Reform, 23 GOVERNING 20, 27 (2010).
26
Commission, supra note 1, at 54.
27
Lance Tapley, Reform Comes to the Supermax, PORTLAND PHOENIX, May 25, 2011,
http://portland.thephoenix.com/news/121171-reform-comes-to-the-supermax/; COLORADO DEPARTMENT OF
CORRECTIONS, REPORT ON THE IMPLEMENTATION OF ADMINISTRATIVE SEGREGATION PLAN 1-2 (2012),
available at https://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/report-co-docs-implementation-administrativesegregation-plan.
28
Video interview by Richard Killmer, Executive Director, National Religious Campaign Against Torture,
with Joseph Ponte. Maine Department of Corrections Director, in Augusta, Maine (October 4, 2011).
29
Erica Goode, Prisons Rethink Isolation: Saving Money, Lives and Sanity, NEW YORK TIMES, March 10,
2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/us/rethinking-solitary-confinement.html.
30
Kristen Wyatt, Colorado Closing Canon City Prison, The Gazette, March 19, 2011,
http://www.gazette.com/articles/colorado-135471-denver-prison.html.
31
Dave McKinney & Andrew Maloney, Editorial, Governor Pat Quinn: Close Super-max Downstate Tamms
Prison, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, February 21, 2012, http://www.suntimes.com/news/politics/10785648418/gov-pat-quinn-close-super-max-downstate-tamms-prison.html.

6

are eventually released directly to the community. 32 This lack of transition from solitary
confinement straight to society is alarming, considering prisoners who are freed directly
from solitary confinement cells are significantly more likely to commit crimes again. 33
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, we hope that your leadership
on this issue will extend beyond this hearing. To that end, we would strongly support
your leadership in sponsoring legislation that would limit the use and length of solitary
confinement. We urge Congress to pass legislation that would:
•
•
•

•

•
•

•

•
•

prohibit the placement of the most vulnerable populations, including
persons with mental illness and juveniles, in solitary confinement;
provide adequate training to all correctional officers concerning signs of
mental illness and effective behavior management techniques for this
population;
ensure that prisoners, inmates, and detainees held in solitary confinement
receive routine and meaningful mental health evaluations and divert
individuals exhibiting signs of mental illness from isolation to mental
health treatment units that provide habilitative care;
designate solitary confinement as a last resort by narrowing the types of
conduct that qualify prisoners, inmates, and detainees to be involuntarily
placed in solitary confinement to include only active and serious safety
concerns, such as escape attempts and severe violent behavior;
require that prisoners, inmates, or detainees who voluntarily request and
are granted placement in solitary confinement have the right to request
immediate reintegration into the general prison population;
improve the due process guarantees provided to prisoners, inmates, and
detainees recommended for placement in solitary confinement, including
providing the prisoner, inmate, or detainee with the written reasons for his
or her recommended placement in isolation and ensuring meaningful
hearing by an objective panel;
provide prisoners, inmates, and detainees placed in solitary confinement
with individualized plans specifying the specific behaviors they must
demonstrate in order to increase their privileges within isolation and
eventually be granted release from solitary confinement;
ensure that the resources and opportunities to reach those behavior
benchmarks are accessible;
provide recognition of and incentives for correctional staff who
successfully utilize alternative behavior management techniques that
prevent prisoners, inmates, and detainees from entering solitary
confinement;

32

Kirk Mitchell, Colorado Prisons Turn Away from Heavy Use of Solitary Confinement, DENVER POST, June
4, 2012, http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_20775290/colorado-prisons-turn-away-from-heavy-usesolitary.
33
See, e.g., Lovell, et al., Recidivism of Supermax Prisoners in Washington State, 53 CRIME AND DELINQ.
633, 633-56 (October 2007).

7

•

•

•
•
•

disincentivize the use of solitary confinement by holding the correctional
officer who refers a prisoner, inmate, or detainee to solitary confinement
accountable for assisting that individual in meeting the behavior
benchmarks in his or her individualized plan;
establish more frequent and meaningful due process guarantees for those
who remain in solitary confinement to demonstrate whether or not they
have met the expectations listed in their individualized plans, including
additional review and approval by higher level correctional officials in
order for prisoners, inmates, and detainees to remain in solitary
confinement beyond designated lapses in time;
require that prisoners, inmates, and detainees in solitary confinement be
reintegrated into the general prison population at least six months prior to
being released to the general public;
establish an absolute maximum amount of time any prisoner, inmate, or
detainee may be held in solitary confinement; and
provide regular and independent oversight bodies with authority to access
and inspect solitary confinement units in all jails, prisons, and detention
centers; such bodies should not depend on corrections agencies for
funding and should have the authority to issue public reports, to make
recommendations, and to compel implementation of those
recommendations.

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, the National Religious Campaign
Against Torture believes strongly that the United States should do everything it can to
reverse our nation’s reliance on solitary confinement. The United States has from its
inception tried to live up to the vision of its role in this world as the “shining city on the
hill.” That luster has been dimmed by the destructive, counterproductive, and immoral
use of solitary confinement. We need to immediately take steps to clearly and
emphatically end the use of prolonged solitary confinement. Your hearing today is a very
important effort in doing that, and we thank you for the opportunity to contribute to it.

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