First-Ever Senate Hearing On Prison Isolation: Solitary Confinement ‘Makes Our Criminal Justice System Criminal’

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"First-Ever Senate Hearing On Prison Isolation: Solitary Confinement ‘Makes Our Criminal Justice System Criminal’"

Mock solitary cell set up in the hearing room. Photo credit: Dolores Panales

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) convened a Senate hearing yesterday to examine the implications of solitary confinement in the American prison system, the first ever hearing to address prison reform as a human rights issue.

A replica of a solitary cell — just 7 feet by 10 feet and bare except for a cot and a toilet — was placed at the front the hearing room during the proceedings as a stark reminder of the prison conditions that face inmates in prolonged isolation.

Anthony Graves, an former prisoner who spent most of his 18 years in prison in extreme isolation, gave one of the most emotional appeals against solitary confinement during his personal testimony:

I am death row exoneree number 138. I was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Texas back in 1992. Like all death row inmates, I was kept in solitary confinement under some of the worst conditions imaginable with the…total disrespect of human dignity. I lived under the rules of a system that is literally driving men out of their minds.

I survived the torture, but those 18 years was no way to live. I lived in a small, 8 by 12 foot cage. I had a steel bunk bed with a very thin, plastic mattress and pillow that you could only trade out once a year. I have back problems as a result. […]

Solitary confinement makes our criminal justice system criminal. Criminal. It is inhumane and by its design, it is driving men insane. I am living amongst millions of people out here, but I still feel alone.

Sen. Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, pointed out that addressing the practice of solitary confinement is a chance for the U.S. “to look in the mirror, to look at our own human rights record” and ask what our prisons say about our American values. Human rights groups — ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to Human Rights Watch to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture — have all called for an end to solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. United Nations experts have described the practice of solitary confinement as a form of torture.

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