At the first-ever congressional hearing held today on the issue of solitary confinement, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said “we’re seeing an alarming increase in isolation for those who don’t really need to be there and for many, many vulnerable groups like immigrants, children, LGBT inmates, supposedly there for their own protection.”
Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Right and Human Rights, acknowledged there is a responsibility to protect prison guards, “but we also must have a clear eyed view of the impact of isolation on the vast majority of prisoners who will one day be released.”
Interest in the hearing was so high that staff had to open an overflow room in a neighboring building with a live video feed.
Charles Samuels, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, testified that solitary confinement is only used when “absolutely necessary.”
“We do not consider any inmate to be held in isolation, though we are aware that some might use this term to refer to all restrictive housing placement, regardless of the extent of contact with other individuals,” he said, noting that all of those in “solitary” have contact with staff and out-of-cell recreation time.
“The use of any form of restrictive housing, however limited, remains a critical management tool that helps us maintain safety, security, and effective reentry programming for all federal inmates,” Samuels added.
“Do you believe you could live in a box like that 23 hours a day, a person who goes in normal and it wouldn’t have any negative impact on you?” Durbin pressed the prisons chief.
“I would say I don’t believe it is the preferred option and that there would be some concerns with prolonged confinement,” Samuels said, also stressing that “inmates who are disruptive and aggressive towards others endanger the safety and security of our institutions.”
Calling the issue a “truly bipartisan” concern about American values, Durbin noted that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department declined the invitation to testify.