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Uptown Peoples Law Center Statement to Senate Judiciary on Solitary Confinement 2012

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Statement of the

Uptown People’s Law Center
Reassessing Solitary Confinement
BEFORE THE

UNITED STATES SENATE
COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY
SUBCOMMITTEE ON THE CONSTITUTION, CIVIL
RIGHTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS

PRESENTED ON

June 19, 2012

Recommendation
The Law Center recognizes that segregating some prisoners, for severe misconduct and
for limited periods of time, is a necessary tool for corrections professionals. However, solitary
confinement must be limited to short terms (less than 90 days), with clear criteria on why men
will be placed in solitary, and what they have to do to be released. Mentally ill prisoners must not
be punished by being held for decades in solitary; they must receive treatment.
The use of highly restrictive solitary confinement has now vastly outgrown its origins.
There is no evidence based rationale for keeping approximately 80,000 prisoners in this country
in conditions of isolation for decades. The over-use of these isolation units is particularly
troubling when applied to juveniles and the mentally ill—which make up a huge portion of the
population of these units. A national Commission to establish limitations on the use of these
isolation units is long overdue.
The Uptown People’s Law Center thus calls on Congress to establish a Commission to
produce recommendations on the use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails receiving
federal funds throughout the country. This Commission should be modeled after the
Commission established by the bipartisan and highly successful, Prison Rape Elimination Act.
PREA has led to an increase in awareness of prison rape by public officials, and a renewed
commitment to ending this terrible blight which has infected our prisons for all too many
decades.

Constitutional Violations Are Rampant in Solitary Confinement
The Uptown People’s Law Center has represented prisoners in solitary confinement in
Illinois’ maximum security prisons since 1982 (see, for example, Walters v. Edgar, 163 F. 3d 430
(7th Cir. 1998). More recently, the Law Center has represented the men confined to Illinois’
supermax prison (Tamms Correctional Center) since the day it opened in March 1998.
During the course of our work, we have exchanged letters with every prisoner at Tamms,
most for many years. We have had dozens of in-person visits with men at Tamms. We have spent
time with their mothers, fathers, sisters, wives and children. More recently we have spent
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significant time with prisoners who have been released from prison having completed their
sentences, now living in our communities, after having spent years, and in many cases more than
a decade, in the profound isolation imposed on prisoners at Tamms. We can say, without
reservation, that Tamms has profoundly damaged the mind of every prisoner who has been
punished by being sent to live in solitary confinement there, especially those men who have
never been told why they are in Tamms.
The culture of control and isolation which is inherent in supermax prisons sets the stage
for a wide variety of human rights violations, in addition to violations of the most sacred rights
guaranteed by the Constitutional of the United States.
The courts have repeatedly found that officials at Tamms supermax have violated
fundamental constitutional rights of the prisoners housed there. These findings include the
denial of the right to practice one’s religion (Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868 (7th Cir. 2009));
retaliation for filing grievances (Pearson v. Welborn, 471 F.3d 732 (7th Cir. 2006)); and unwarranted
censorship of outgoing mail (Arnett v. Markel, 363 Ill.App.3d 1136, 845 N.E.2d 752(5th Dist.
2006)).
The Law Center has also filed three class action cases relating to conditions at Tamms.
Two remain pending. In Rasho v. Godinez, pending in the United States District Court of the
Central District of Illinois, we allege that prisoners with mental illness throughout the state of
Illinois are not properly treated. One of the central points of that case is that Illinois continues to
confine seriously mentally ill prisoners at Tamms, for years on end, without meaningful mental
health treatment, and watches as these men continue their descent into madness. The second
pending class action case is Almodovar v. Snyder, pending in the Circuit Court of Sangamon
County, in which we allege that prisoners at Tamms are not given meaningful review of their
continued placement at Tamms–in violation of both Illinois’ own laws and in violation of the due
process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
The principle case we have pursued relates more directly to who is at Tamms and why. In
Westefer v. Snyder, 735 F.Supp.2d 735 (S.D.Ill. 2010), we alleged that prisoners had been sent to
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Tamms in violation of their right to due process—prisoners were not provided notice of the
reason for their transfer, a hearing at which they could contest those reasons, or a meaningful
decision explaining the outcome of the hearing. Instead, an all too typical “hearing” consisted of a
prisoner being brought into a room with no advance notice of why he was there, then being asked
why he thought that he had been sent to Tamms. The due process claims were certified as a class
action on behalf of all prisoners transferred to Tamms.
In addition, we brought claims on behalf of individual prisoners who claimed that their
transfer to Tamms was retaliatory punishment for the filing grievances and lawsuits. In the Fall of
2009, a federal jury in southern Illinois found that four of the individual plaintiffs had, as we
alleged, been sent to Tamms to punish them for exercising their First Amendment rights, and
that there was no legitimate reason for them to have ever been sent to Tamms in the first place.
Unfortunately, by the time the jury rendered this verdict, those four men had spent a total of
more than 30 years in profound isolation. The damage had been done. Under the Prison Litigation
Reform Act, since none of them had suffered any physical injury, they were only entitled to $1.00
as compensation for having had their mental health severely damaged.
In June 2010, the District Court found in favor of the Westefer plaintiff class. Under the
applicable law (Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995)) the court had to determine whether a
transfer to Tamms imposed an “atypical and significant” hardship on prisoners. The Court
answered that question with a resounding “yes.”
The Court began its discussion with a reminder of how Tamms was initially conceived:
Even before the supermax prison at Tamms was opened in 1998, the 1993 final
report of the Illinois Task Force on Crime and Corrections, which recommended
the construction of the supermax prison, cautioned,
Reputable human rights organizations . . . have expressed
legitimate and serious concerns about practices in existing
super-maximum security facilities. The Task Force recommends
that our Super-Max facility be required by statute to conform to
certain requirements concerning constitutional and humanitarian
safeguards. Since these highly restrictive environments, if misused, can
create conditions tantamount to long-term isolation, the Department of
Corrections will have to establish clearly defined rules and
regulations to govern the admission and release of inmates from the
Super-Max facility and to monitor its operation and administration
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closely. Illinois Task Force on Crime and Corrections, Final Report,
at 87-88 (1993) (Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 19)(emphasis added).
As the Court hopes will be apparent from its discussion of the
evidence in this case, including the Court’s first-hand observation
of conditions at Tamms during a tour of the facility in the company
of IDOC officials and counsel for the parties to this case, the Task
Force’s concerns about confinement in the supermax prison at
Tamms becoming an experience of long-term isolation for IDOC
inmates were and are well-founded.
The Court went on to make findings of fact based on the extensive evidentiary record regarding
the impact of long term isolation on the mental health of prisoners:
Strickland * * * testified that while he was at Tamms he began experiencing
auditory hallucinations or “hearing voices” and suffered delusions that correctional
personnel at the supermax prison were poisoning his food. Id. at 10. Ultimately
Strickland was transferred out of Tamms to the Psychiatric Unit of the Dixon
Correctional Center, where he remained for approximately a year before being
transferred to Pontiac.
Another prisoner intentionally created a fake escape attempt to relieve some of the isolation he
experienced at Tamms:
Rodney Guthrie testified that he had no history of psychiatric disorders before
being transferred to Tamms and that, following his transfer to the supermax
prison, he fell into a severe depression caused by the isolation at Tamms that
ultimately prompted him to have himself classified as an escape risk in a desperate
bid to escape from that isolation.
Based on the testimony of a dozen prisoners, the Court found:
[T]he intense deprivation of human contact at Tamms exacts a toll on the
psychological well-being of the inmates of the supermax prison.
Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found that the
injunction entered by the District Court Judge to remedy these constitutional violations was
overly detailed. However, the Seventh Circuit did not disturb any of the factual findings entered
by the District Court, and reaffirmed that prisoners sent to Tamms were entitled to a due
process hearing—because the restrictions imposed at Tamms were so severe compared to those
imposed, even at other maximum security prisons.

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Conclusion
Segregating some prisoners, for severe misconduct and for limited periods of time, is a
necessary tool for corrections professionals. However, that is not what Illinois, nor most of the
other supermax facilities throughout the country, does. Rather, the use of solitary in Illinois has
metastasized. Not only does Illinois confine over 100 men at the Tamms supermax, but there are
several thousand men confined in segregation, under extreme conditions, at the State’s century
old maximum security prisons—Menard, Pontiac, and Stateville. With the increasing use of
months long lockdowns at these older prisons, conditions begin to approach the isolation of a
supermax, with prisoners locked in their cells 24 hours a day. However, Tamms presents a special
case.
The Governor of Illinois has now proposed closing Tamms supermax prison in its entirety.
In the course of public hearings on the Governor’s proposal, the Director of the Department of
Corrections has admitted that there are less than 25 men at Tamms who need enhanced security.
The remainder can be housed, without any security concerns, in Illinois’ maximum security
prisons. We believe the numbers are the same in every state in the country. Mississippi reduced
its segregation population by 90%, saving millions of dollars—and saw the incidence of violence
drop dramatically.
We urge Congress to take action on this issue at the national level. Evidence based
policies must be applied to solitary confinement. There must be clear criteria for assignment to
solitary, clear limits on how long prisoners can be kept in solitary, and clear goals prisoners can
meet to win their release from solitary. Juveniles and those with mental illness should never be
placed in solitary. The federal government should take the lead in ensuring that corrections
systems are smart on crime, and make efficient use of taxpayer dollars, inflicting punishment only
under carefully controlled circumstances, through fully transparent mechanisms.

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