In-Depth: Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to require Congress to study and reform solitary confinement:
“It is past time that Congress act to study and reform solitary confinement in the United States. This is an issue I have been working on since my time in the Louisiana State Legislature. Solitary confinement is inhumane, psychologically damaging, and unnecessarily expensive to taxpayers. Passage of this bill would advance the national conversation we need on solitary confinement and help improve the treatment of prisoners and juveniles in our prison systems.”
In 2015, Rep. Richmond called solitary confinement a form of “modern torture” that is “inconsistent with our morals and values in America”:
“We have abused the practice of solitary confinement to the point where it has become modern day torture. Too many prisoners, including the seriously mentally ill and juveniles are locked away for 23 hours a day, often with little to no due process and at a steep cost to the taxpayer. [Instead of being] reserved for the worst of the worst, solitary confinement is too often being overused for 'administrative' reasons to avoid providing treatment for the mentally ill and rehabilitation for those who will return to society."
Original cosponsor Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) adds:
“In our country, offenders are to be held responsible for their crimes, but solitary confinement with its numerous negative effects on a human’s well-being and the taxpayer’s wallet, should not be our first resort for punishment. The Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2019 will ensure the finest methods are being utilized in our jails and prisons so that inmates are treated humanely and given the best chance to return to society as healthy, productive, and law-abiding citizens.”
Solitary confinement’s defenders argue that it’s necessary to ensure the safety of prison personnel and other prisoners. At Pelican State Prison in California, prison officials say that solitary is needed to isolate gang leaders from other prisoners.
Donn Rowe, president of the New York State Corrections Officers & Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA), defended solitary confinement in a 2012 New York Post op-ed:
“Inmates continue to perpetrate violence even after they’ve lost their freedom and are living behind prison walls. So correction staff face a dual challenge: 1) provide safety and security to both inmates and fellow staff, while 2) also implementing programs designed to rehabilitate inmates so that they live as law-abiding citizens once they return to society. Critics… either don’t have experience inside the correctional system, or wrongly assume disciplinary confinement is used arbitrarily… [D]isciplinary confinement… is a critical tool for ensuring this stability and safety inside a correctional facility — both for other inmates and the staff working there… [It] bears no resemblance to the Hollywood stereotypes that perpetrate a myth of inhumane treatment. Inmates are closely monitored through constant rounds made by correction officers, security staff, prison management, mental-health staff, medical personnel, the inmate- grievance coordinator and other staff. They are allowed reading and legal materials. In some cases, inmates can participate in limited programs, earn privileges or reduce their time in disciplinary confinement. Some are even housed in two-man cells. And they get time to exercise; some with substance-abuse problems can participate in treatment programs. Make no mistake — disciplinary confinement is a punishment for violating the code of conduct inside the prison walls. It’s the only mechanism now in place for removing an inmate from the general population for the protection of staff, other inmates or sometimes even the inmate himself.”
This legislation has one cosponsor, Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), in the 116th Congress. Last Congress, it had 40 Democratic cosponsors and didn’t receive a committee vote. When Rep. Richmond introduced this bill in the 113th Congress in 2014, it was supported by Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3 and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
Of Note: In 2005, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) census showed 81,622 people in “restricted housing,” also known as solitary confinement, in state and federal prisons. In recent years, the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and the Liman Center at Yale Law School have worked together to gather more accurate, up-to-date information. In an October 2018 report, the ASCA and Liman Center counted 61,000 people in solitary — a 7,000 person decrease from its 2016 report of 68,000.
In 2014, Damon Thibodeaux, who DNA testing exonerated for his 1997 conviction for murder and sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee about his 15 years of solitary confinement on Angola Prison’s death row:
"I spent my years at Angola, while my lawyers fought to prove my innocence, in a cell that measured about 8 feet by 10 feet. It had three solid walls all painted white, a cell door, a sink, a toilet, a desk and seat attached to a wall, and an iron bunk with a thin mattress. These four walls are your life. Being in that environment for 23 hours a day will slowly kill you… Humans cannot survive without food and water. They can't survive without sleep. But they also can't survive without hope. Years on end in solitary, particularly on death row, will drain that hope from anyone. Because in solitary, there's nothing to live for.”
Gabriel Reyes, one of a group of Pelican Bay State Prison inmates (including some in solitary confinement for as many as 28 years) is pursuing a class action against the state of California over its use of solitary confinement in Ashker v. Brown, called solitary confinement a “living tomb” in 2014:
“Unless you have lived it, you cannot imagine what it feels like to be by yourself, between four cold walls, with little concept of time, no one to confide in, and only a pillow for comfort - for years on end. It is a living tomb.”
Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman punishment, has stated that spending more than fifteen days in solitary confinement can lead to permanent harmful psychological effects. He’s also said that these effects may amount to torture.
In January 2016, President Barack Obama announced his decision to ban solitary confinement for youthful offenders and expand treatment for the mentally ill behind bars in a Washington Post op-ed.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / StephanHoerold)