Yesterday, I rustled myself out of sleep to catch the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. It opened with a devastating video of a young woman who lost her brother, who at 17 was placed in solitary confinement in adult prison.
I thought of Joseph Maldonado, and his sister, Renee Nunez who worked with us for increased family access after her brother’s tragic suicide following months in solitary.
In addition to highlighting the very real impact of isolation on people, Subcommittee Chair Durbin challenged his colleagues to visit a prison. Indicating that attendees could view a replica of an isolation cell in the hearing room, Senator Durbin also acknowledged that no one can know the pain of isolation unless they truly experience it.
That’s why we included multiple personal Families for Books Not Bars members’ accounts of solitary confinement of youth in the testimony we submitted to the Committee. I was gratified when Senator Durbin called for a ban on solitary confinement for all children under the age of 18.
The rest of the hearing focused on adult prisoners. The first panel consisted of one man, Charles Samuels, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I found myself shouting at my laptop as Samuels blithely denied that solitary confinement harms people. Mild-mannered, often faltering, Samuels’ demeanor called to my mind the banality of evil. There stood a man who calmly spat bureaucratic double-speak in order to hide the reality of torture that prisoners suffer under his watch. Solitary confinement has many names: “Restricted housing.” “Special Housing Unit.” “Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (ADX).” ADX is a prison in Colorado that the Committee had special interest in, as it is notorious for its extreme isolation practices.
I don’t usually contend with the federal prison system. As I watched Samuels, I thought of the many Muslims snared in the federal government’s sweeping anti-Muslim witch hunt, some held incommunicado even before trial. The special prisons built just for them are also cloaked in an Orwellian name: Communications Management Units. They’re even worse than ADX. Some are so broken by the experience that they succumb to the government’s mighty pressure to just plead guilty. In a glaring omission, CMUs were not even mentioned at the hearing.
In the second panel, witnesses shared horrifying accounts of prisoners in solitary confinement. Self-mutilation, psychic breaks, suicide attempts. An attorney for mentally ill prisoners added that even beyond the criminal justice system, we as a society must examine how we treat the mentally ill, who end up warehoused in prisons instead of receiving treatment. I would add that in communities like ours in Oakland, we question how the system treats our children--instead of setting them up to thrive, with good schools, healthy food and recreation, kids are often over-policed and fast tracked into prisons.
Importantly, California’s own Dr. Craig Haney noted that solitary confinement is just part of the overall problem of mass incarceration in the U.S. Tough-on-crime policies warehouse hundreds of thousands of Americans, but have failed to make us safer. Chiefs of increasingly overcrowded prisons abandon any attempts to program or rehabilitate, isolating and abusing people instead.
Anthony Graves rounded out the hearing as no one else could. On death row for 18 years before he was exonerated, Graves spent 10 of those years with no human contact. He painfully described the impact that solitary confinement still has on him, and the men he saw broken by it. You really should watch his testimony. Graves challenged Samuels and anyone else who denies that solitary confinement is harmful: “Go live there for 30 days, and then I will listen to you … because I know what you’re gonna say. That’s hell. That is hell.”
Indeed. Help us urge Congress to abolish this hell.