The hearing featured oral testimony from several panelists, including Dr. Craig Haney, one of the foremost experts on the devastating psychological torment of solitary confinement, and Anthony Graves, a former prisoner who spent eighteen years on Texas’ death row before being exonerated. Also speaking on the panel were Pat Nolan, President of Justice Fellowship/Prison Fellowship Ministries, Stuart Andrews, an attorney representing prisoners in solitary confinement in South Carolina, and Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, who under the pressure of litigation significantly reduced the solitary confinement population in Mississippi. The panelists were nearly unanimous in their negative assessment of the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners and on society at large; the lone holdout was Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which oversees the Supermax in Florence, Colorado, a notorious site of torture that was just hit with a class action lawsuit on Monday.
Samuels attempted, without much enthusiasm, to defend the BOP’s use of solitary, claiming that the keepers of the federal prison system already do everything in their power to employ the least restrictive measures possible. Like other prison officials at other hearings before him (notably PA DOC Regional Director Michael Klopotoski at a PA Congressional hearing on solitary in Yeadon PA, 2010), Samuels denied that solitary confinement exists in his prisons, claiming that solitary prisoners’ contact with guards constitutes meaningful social interaction. Samuels’ answers to questions about the humanity, usefulness, and wisdom of the practice of segregation were consistently evasive as in every instance he attempted to cite vague, generalized BOP policy rather than address specific concerns raised by the senators. Though the strain of flirting with perjury showed on him—having been sworn in, Samuels was visibly nervous throughout his time on the stand—he maintained the BOP’s “innocence” of perpetrating crimes against humanity and Senators Durbin, Graham and Franken were ultimately unsuccessful at getting direct answers to their simple and specific questions.
Panelists' testimony will be supplemented in the record by written submissions, which flooded into the subcomittee’s staffers the week before the proceeding. More than 70 submissions from survivors of solitary, family members with loved ones being tortured, civil and human rights organizations, abolitionists, reformists, lawyers, professors, and at least one former prison official have been collected by Solitary Watch and can be accessed here.
A strange feature of the proceedings was the overwhelming presence among the crowd of US Capitol ID tags. Though most events focusing on the evils of solitary confinement tend to be planned, hosted, and attended chiefly by grassroots organizations, family members/survivors of solitary, and the odd handful of larger progressive nonprofits, Tuesday’s hearing seemed positively swamped by Congressional interns, staffers, and other regular inhabitants of the halls of power. As the hearing drew to a close, this point was remarked on by a small line of people still waiting outside in hopes that space would open up: an attorney for the Angola 3, who traveled from Louisiana for the hearing, Hakeem Shaheed, survivor of USP Marion who traveled from New Jersey, two orange-jumpsuited members of HRC from Philadelphia, and several attorneys with the US Department of Justice. This small crowd wondered aloud what was going on as the doors opened and out filed a steady stream of congressional staffers with no apparent connection whatsoever to prison abolition or the fight against torture in U.S. prisons.
Another notable aspect of the hearing was Senators Durbin and Franken remarking that the U.S. is the only “democracy” in the world to use solitary confinement on such a scale, although this observation evaded the reality that the U.S. imposes solitary confinement far more than any nation, “democratic” or otherwise. In fact, the globally and historically unprecedented scale of torture and other human rights violations associated with solitary confinement and race and class-based mass incarceration are responsible for such an immense amount of suffering, political disenfranchisement, social marginalization, and economic oppression that referring to the U.S. as a “democracy” perverts the meaning of the term.
It is unclear what steps—if any—will follow this hearing that only three of the eleven white men who sit on the subcommittee bothered to attend. While Senator Durbin’s knowledge on the subject demonstrated that he had familiarized himself with the issue, it is difficult to imagine the U.S. Congress as a whole taking a bold stance in defense of human rights.
The Human Rights Coalition submitted a statement, excerpted below, that sought to highlight aspects of the issue that are all too often neglected, especially how solitary confinement is used as a tool of retaliation and political repression, the rampant and sadistic abuse perpetrated by staff and condoned by officials, including murder and incitement to suicide. Most important of all, the submission emphasized the voices, experiences, and leadership of current and former prisoners and the communities most impacted by solitary confinement and mass incarceration in the emerging movement to abolish torture, mass incarceration, and the destructive political-economic system that is responsible for them.
HRC’s Statement can be read in full here. (Excerpts, including recommendations, below)
Systemic and severe violations of international human rights law are an endemic—and suppressed—feature of prison conditions in the United States. During the last thirty years the United States has embarked upon a project of race- and class-based mass incarceration unlike anything the world has ever seen. Emerging in this same period has been the regime of super-maximum security prison units, where people are held in solitary confinement between 22-24 hours a day, seven days a week, often for years on end. These units are defined by severe restrictions on visitations, phone calls (which are often prohibited), incoming and outgoing mail, limits on in-cell legal and personal property, and prohibitions on cell decorations. Medical neglect, physical and psychological abuse, food deprivation, racism, and other human rights violations flourish in these conditions, which are effectively hidden from public scrutiny. . . .
As described below and in other submissions presented to this subcommittee, the austere, abusive, dehumanizing conditions of solitary confinement fit the legal definition of torture articulated in the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and are strictly prohibited under international human rights law and the U.S. Constitution. The absolute prohibition on torture is recognized as a jus cogens, or peremptory norm of international law that is binding on all governments. No treaty or domestic statute can supersede this prohibition. The prohibition against torture is subject to universal jurisdiction and obligates governments to apprehend and bring to justice perpetrators wherever they are to be found. . . .
International law, as codified in treaties that are recognized as the Supreme Law of the Land under the U.S. Constitution, mandates that local, state, and federal governments have an affirmative duty to conduct independent, legitimate and transparent investigations and prosecute guards and officials involved in the perpetration or enabling of torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners. Survivors of torture are entitled to justice and state officials of every jurisdiction are responsible for ensuring the abolition of torture within institutions subject to their control. . . .
Within this context of social isolation and deprivation, whereby certain people are deemed unworthy and rendered unable to exercise the most basic elements of their human personality, it is unsurprising that brutality flourishes. Instances of staff mistreatment “cannot be characterized as unfortunate but merely occasional incidents to solitary confinement; they are too often an integral part of the experience.”
A review of thousands of pages of letters, affidavits, grievances, misconducts, other prison documents, legal paperwork, and conversations with family members and support people has revealed a culture of terror within the solitary confinement units in PA prisons. HRC has spoken and corresponded with survivors of this abuse, people who have been beaten, had their bones broken, been saturated with pepper spray and left in excruciating pain for hours, repeatedly shocked with 50,000-volt charges, had glass, insects, and dirt placed in their food, and who have been subjected to casual and routine use of racist language and images.
A culture of terror is defined as a set of assumptions and practices that divide a community into those with absolute power and those who are absolutely powerless. This dynamic is inherent within the logic of prisons, and is at its most intense in the solitary confinement units. Any attempt to upset this totalitarian balance and its dehumanizing logic is met with remorseless brutality by those in power. The core elements of this culture of terror include: arbitrary and biased processes for establishing who is placed in solitary; utilization of fabricated misconducts as a tool of retaliation; systematic denial of prisoner grievances regardless of their merit; the use of violence as a standard technique for enforcing obedience; refusal to engage in constructive dialogue on the part of prison authorities; targeting witnesses of abuse for purposes of intimidation; displays of overt racism as a tool of dehumanization.
Those with power in this culture reinforce their rule through a strict code of silence whereby they refuse to inform on one another to those higher up or outside of the prison hierarchy. Prison guards enforce their rule through threats and use of force, along with deprivations of basic necessities such as food, water, hygienic items, cleaning supplies, clothing, and bedding. Prison administrators and top officials of the PA DOC adopt an informal though strictly enforced policy of turning a blind eye to reports of torture and abuse. . . .
Prisoner Protest and Leadership in Defense of Human Rights
It is unlikely that a senate subcommittee hearing would have ever been convened to discuss the issue of solitary confinement were it not for the movement of non-violent resistance in solitary units across the nation. In July 2011, a hunger strike in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of Pelican Bay State Prison in California spread to nearly a third of the California Prison system, generating national and international attention. A supporter of the striking prisoners explained the reality of those trapped in the SHU: “They had exhausted the legal process, going through the avenues, no matter how narrow, outlined by the prison administration. They had nothing else besides their bodies to use.” Swelling to include 6,600 prisoners, the July strike was the beginning of a renewed struggle against the conditions of solitary confinement in California prisons, and has resulted in a federal lawsuit challenging the use of long-term isolation in California.
California was not the first major hunger strike in the nation or the most recent. Prisoners held in solitary units in North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia have staged hunger strikes in recent months, and countless others have occurred across the nation. Each strike has focused mainly on the policies that place and keep prisoners in solitary units. In California one of the core policies used to hold people in indefinite solitary confinement is the “gang validation” program, which targets prisoners based on their alleged affiliations with a gang, a determination that is often made on the basis of secret and unreviewable evidence. In order to be released from the SHU, a prisoner has to become a state informant, providing any and all information about the gang, thus placing that person and their family at serious risk of reprisal. In Ohio there are no guidelines for how long a prisoner can be held in the solitary unit and prisoners placed there for whatever reason can expect to stay for at least a year.
Hunger strikes and other extreme means that solitary prisoners have been driven to in order to seek redress for the glaring constitutional and human rights violations they are suffering demonstrate the fundamental inhumanity of the use of solitary. It is prisoners themselves who have taken leadership in speaking out against their own dehumanization and that of their fellow prisoners, and it is they who have been most instrumental in exposing the true nature of prison life in this country. Filing grievances and lawsuits, alerting outside governmental and non-governmental agencies, mobilizing friends and support people are all routine acts of non-violent, constitutionally-protected protest and whistle-blowing. Those who engage in hunger strikes and other individual and collective acts of protest and non-violent resistance do so at great risk to themselves, as prison officials almost uniformly treat attempts to address grievances as acts of subversion to be violently suppressed. It is the efforts of those inside these units fighting to hold onto their sanity and their humanity that have alerted and motivated the growing array of support groups, family members, civil and human rights groups, lawyers, mental health experts, and legislators to begin to recognize the scale and urgency of their predicament.
While our government purports to be concerned about human rights and the rule of law globally, the unacknowledged human rights crisis inside U.S. prisons indicates that the government is not in a position to lecture others on these subjects. A fundamental change in public consciousness and governmental priorities is long overdue if the U.S. is to begin to bridge the vast chasm between its stated respect for the rule of law and the reality of widespread and normalized torture and other ill-treatment in the prison system.
The United States Congress is profoundly implicated in these widespread and systemic human rights violations. In addition to embarking on a historically and globally unprecedented experiment in race and class-based mass incarceration, the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act in 1996 raised deliberate obstacles to prisoners’ ability to vindicate their civil rights in U.S. courts. If this hearing is to be the beginning of a serious, constructive engagement with the urgent and worsening human rights crises inside U.S. prisons, it is imperative that the voices, experiences, and leadership of current and former prisoners and those communities most impacted by solitary confinement and mass incarceration are at the center of reversing this culture of dehumanization. Some recommendations toward the abolition of torture in U.S prisons that can be acted on by the U.S. Congress include:
1. Holding further hearings in Washington, D.C. and in the home districts of individual representatives and senators that feature the testimony of current and former prisoners, their families, civil and human rights organizations, and other relevant experts and advocates. These hearings must directly confront the debilitating psychological impact of solitary confinement and its use as a tool of terror and repression.
2. Creating a commission to investigate torture and other ill-treatment within state and federal prisons. This commission shall be shaped by prisoners and their families and focus on the voices and experiences of those whom have survived solitary confinement torture. The commission must be granted the authority to subpoena government officials and prison officials and records. Periodic progress reports will be mandatory and the commission must be granted the authority to bring criminal charges as soon as the evidentiary threshold for such is met. All records of the commission’s investigation shall be made available upon request in order to satisfy the requirements of transparency.
3. Introducing legislation to prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in county, state, and federal prisons, including military prisons. Solitary confinement should be identified as a prima facie statutory violation of this law.
4. These recommendations should be construed as part of a broader process of Truth and Accountability that seeks to abolish solitary confinement, other forms of torture, and mass incarceration. This process will only be effective if it is rooted in the leadership of prisoners and communities targeted by policies of mass incarceration.