It is no secret that our criminal justice system has become increasingly more punitive within the last few decades. The longer, harsher sentences currently being administered are not always proportional to the severity of the crime (or, if already imprisoned, the infraction) committed. One such form of punishment is solitary confinement which, as of late, has garnered greater attention and has raised questions about the morality and legality of some aspects of our criminal justice system.
On February 25, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held a hearing entitled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences” to address the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, specifically for juveniles, pregnant women and the severely mentally ill. The hearing, presided over by Subcommittee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL), included testimony from those who have first-hand experience with the practice of solitary confinement, including prisoners who had been subjected to solitary confinement, and prison officials responsible for implementing the practice. Both sides agreed that there are significant flaws in how, and to whom, solitary confinement is administered.
After hearing the highly moving testimony of Damon Thibodeaux who spent nearly 15 years in solitary confinement while on death row for a crime he did not commit, it is hard to imagine how solitary confinement is appropriate for anyone but the most dangerous of offenders. According to Thibodeaux, his time in solitary broke his will to live. Had it not been for the persuasion of his lawyer, Thibodeaux said, he would have relinquished his legal rights and allowed the state of Louisiana to execute him, in spite of his innocence.
The troubling nature of solitary confinement is compounded by its use on pregnant women, children and those who are already suffering from mental illness. It is clear that no one in prison is beyond the reach of this highly damaging punishment. As citizens of the United States, we must ask ourselves whether or not we are comfortable with the use of this punishment, and if so, under what circumstances.
Also testifying were Charles E. Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; The Honorable Craig DeRoche, President of Justice Fellowship; Piper Kerman, whose time in a women’s federal prison is recounted in her book, Orange is the New Black; Rick Raemisch, the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections (who spent 20 hours in solitary confinement to experience the effects of the punishment himself); and Mark A. Levin, Esq., Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. All of those who testified, with the exception of Mr. Samuels, urged the Judiciary committee to consider making the changes that are desperately needed to reduce the frequency at which solitary confinement is used and to prohibit its use on special populations like women, children and the mentally ill.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is to be commended for its continued interest in effective and necessary sentencing reform. Punishments should be proportional to the severity of the crime committed. Imprisonment should not be make our inmates worse upon their release than when they arrived in prison. The arbitrary and indefinite administration of solitary confinement for prisoners, except for those who pose extreme risks to the safety of themselves or those around them, must end.