Exonerated Inmate: No One, No Matter The Crime, Can Endure Solitary Confinement For Very Long

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Damon Thibodeaux spent 15 years in solitary confinement for a murder he didn’t commit before he was exonerated in 2012. In 15 years, he saw his family three times. His placement in a small 8-by-10 cell with three solid white walls and a door for 23 hours a day was a mistake. But he told a Senate committee Thursday that even those who have committed heinous crimes should not be subjected to what he experienced:

These four walls are your life. Being in that environment for 23 hours a day will slowly kill you. Mentally, you have to find some way to live as if you were not there. If you cannot do that, you will die a slow mental death and may actually wish for your physical death, so that you do not have to continue that existence. More than anything, solitary confinement is an existence without hope.

No one, no matter how horrible the crimes for which they have been convicted, can endure this lack of stimulation, contact, and activity for very long. I saw men lose their minds. Some screamed at all hours of the night. Some just stared at a wall, even when they could spend their one hour a day outside of the cell. Some were drugged to the point that they seemed nearly comatose. Some tried to save their medications and overdose on them to commit suicide. I saw men smear their feces in their cells. For 15 years, I watched the State slowly execute many of my fellow inmates before it could legally put the needle into their arms. […]

I do not condone what those who have killed and committed other serious offenses have done. But, I also do not condone what we do to them when we put them in solitary for years on end and treat them as less than human. We are better than that or, at least, we like to think that we are. Why do we think it is necessary to do this to anyone and what benefit are we gaining by doing it? It’s torture, pure and simple, no matter what else we want to call it. Very few people in this country have any idea that we are keeping thousands of people in solitary confinement and what we are doing to them by doing that.

Because Thibodeaux was on death row, he endured long-term confinement that would have lasted until his execution. But at least 80,000 U.S. inmates are placed in confinement at any given time, all too frequently not just because they are a danger to others, but for their own treatment, or for disciplinary purposes.

Piper Kerman, whose year in prison was the basis for the book and now Netflix television series, Orange Is The New Black, testified that women were frequently placed in solitary for “violations” as minor as having underwear from outside the prison. She said the threat of solitary confinement kept women from reporting sexual or other abuse, because it could prompt retribution from prison staff. Other times, she saw women immediately placed in solitary confinement upon their arrival because there weren’t any other open beds. She corroborated that, “[t]he sounds of prisoners shrieking in their cells and banging their fists or heads against the walls is nothing out of the ordinary.”

Colorado Department of Corrections head Rick Raemisch agreed that the practice is regularly “overused, misused, and abused,” as a means of prison management or treatment, even when it is counter-productive and cruel.

To understand solitary confinement, there is perhaps no better place to start than Colorado. Its prisons are rife with the practice. By one estimate last year, more than half of the state’s mentally ill inmates had been subjected to the treatment. In a great stroke of irony, the Colorado Corrections Chief who warned that the practice could make inmates who are later released more dangerous was killed by a man who was released from prison right out of solitary confinement. Parents and friends of the perpetrator, Evan Ebel, had fought for a change to Colorado’s solitary confinement practices, noting dramatic changes in Ebel’s personality. Testifying in favor of a bill to that would require inmates to spend time outside of solitary confinement before leaving prison, his parents said before his death, “What I’ve seen over six years is he has become increasingly … he has a high level of paranoia and [is] extremely anxious.”

“’The Steel Door Solution’ of segregation, as I call it, either suspends the problem or multiplies it, but definitely does not solve it,” said Raemisch, who replaced Tom Clements after his death and wrote a powerful New York Times op-ed on his night experiencing solitary. “If our goal is to decrease the number of victims inside prison, and outside prison, like Tom Clements, then we must rethink how we use Administrative Segregation, especially when it comes to the mentally ill.”

The Senate hearing comes as the Bureau of Prisons agreed more than a year ago to reassess U.S. use of the practice. Thus far, not much has changed, although Raemisch says Colorado has dramatically reduced its reliance on the practice. Maximum security prisons in California and elsewhere continue to hold more than 500 inmates for 10 to 28 years. As the witnesses testified Tuesday, the practice is particularly common among the mentally ill, both because prisons sometimes view it as a way to treat or manage their conditions, and because some may be particularly unable to comprehend or follow the prison rules, the violation of which lands inmates in solitary as punishment.

Thibodeaux testified that he has “suffered a number of long-term effects from solitary confinement, including difficulty engaging and speaking with people on some occasions.” Psychologists have described the isolation as potentially “toxic to mental functioning,” particularly for the mentally ill. And a neuroscientist said last week that solitary confinement may dramatically alter brain shape after just a few days. Raemisch testified that even for the most dangerous inmates whose isolation is necessary for prison safety, the form of that isolation need not be a windowless, tiny cell with no time in an enclosed outdoor space.

Several courts have deemed the practice unconstitutional as applied to the mentally ill. And a Virginia federal judge recently ruled the unreviewed, indefinite detention of death row inmates unconstitutional. Lawsuits seem to be motivating reform in some states. New York agreed last week to at least curb the practice for juveniles, pregnant women, and those with developmental disabilities. But those are the most extreme examples, and only place limits, not bans, on confinement. In South Carolina, the state has continued to defend its vile treatment of the mentally ill “tooth and nail” despite repeated findings that the system is in “profound crisis.”