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Senate Hears Testimony that Prolonged Prison Solitary Confinement is Torture

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Posted June 27, 2012

Interview with Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Rabbis for Human Rights, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., held a first-of-its-kind congressional hearing June 19 on the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons – a practice many human rights advocates assert is torture. The hearing took testimony from prison officials, relatives of prisoners and former inmates on ways to reduce the damaging effect of the practice. The hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights followed the filing of a class-action federal lawsuit by the Center for Constitutional Rights May 31 on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in California who have spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement.

Under solitary confinement, prisoners are held by themselves in small cells for up to 23 hours per day with one hour set aside for exercise. According to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, studies have documented the detrimental psychological effects of solitary confinement, such as hallucinations, paranoia, and panic attacks. The United States leads the world in the number of prisoners held in prolonged solitary confinement, with at least 80,000 inmates subjected to the conditions on any given day.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, who was at the hearing, is the director of North American programs for the group Rabbis for Human Rights -North America, and serves on the board of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Rabbi Troster, who describes the significance of the hearing, how solitary confinement came to be seen as torture, and how congressional attention on the practice could help improve conditions for death row inmates and others.

RABBI RACHEL KAHN-TROSTER: It was a one-day hearing and what was significant about it was (that it was) the first time the Senate in any way had looked at solitary confinement as an issue in American prisons. It really felt like an exciting and significant moment for the human rights community. The hearing room was packed; the overflow room was packed. There were human rights activists, civil liberties activists, religious leaders, prison reform advocates. That really underscored how significant it was that the Senate decided to investigate the use of solitary confinement.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you share some of the highlights from the hearing?

RABBI RACHEL KAHN-TROSTER: I think there were several highlights. I think the really significant highlight was hearing from Anthony Graves. He was a former death row prisoner from Texas. He was exonerated two years ago. He spent 18 years in solitary confinement in Texas, since he was a prisoner on death row. Many prisoners on death row are by definition in solitary confinement, and he was exonerated two years ago and released from prison, and he spoke about what it was like for him to be on death row and in solitary confinement and the way it still affects him. He said he still cries every night from the effects of his incarceration. He said he saw people go mad, people who weren't mentally ill before they were put in solitary confinement. He talked in a very shocking moment about one prisoner gouging out his own eye.

I also thought it was really critical that we heard from Christopher Epps, who is the state Commissioner for Mississippi and he's the longest-serving state prison commissioner in the country. And Mississippi is not known for being soft on crime, so the fact that he was able to speak about how he had reduced solitary confinement in Mississippi prisons, and he had closed one of their super-max prisons, and how effective that had been in making the prison population safer.

He spoke about the fact that many of the people in his prisons are mentally ill, and that what we needed was to deal with the mentally ill before they end up in prison. To hear him say that was incredibly significant just because of the constituency he represents. And it highlights the fact that solitary confinement is not a left-right issue, it's a bipartisan issue, and different states with different political persuasions are beginning to take this on, and understand that we as Americans have to reduce the use of solitary confinement for all kinds of reasons – whether it's cost, human rights, or sheer efficacy in keeping prison guards safe, because violence is often reduced in prisons that reduce the use of solitary confinement. For all those reasons, this is an important issue.

We also heard from the head of the federal bureau of prisons, who spoke about conditions in federal prisons, and he largely denied that solitary confinement was causing mental illness, which I know is the subject of a federal lawsuit, so he was somewhat constrained in what he could say. I think he was speaking from the side that this wasn't such a significant issue. Then we heard from other activists and experts – psychologists who were speaking to the fact that this is such an important prison reform issue.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Rabbi Kahn-Troster, many people might consider solitary confinement a relatively safe and relaxing way to spend one's time in prison. But in recent years, the human rights community has moved to calling it torture, at least under certain circumstances. How did that come about?

RABBI RACHEL KAHN-TROSTER: It is pretty extreme, but I think there's a growing psychological consensus that it is torture, that it makes people insane. It's mental torture and the effects are very long-lasting. We're starting to see studies from psychologists who've been speaking for a long time about how this creates long-lasting effects. Last year, the UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, released a report on solitary confinement as a form of torture, and I think that galvanized everyone into beginning to think of this not just as cruel, but actually as a form of torture, that it actually does rise to the level of torture.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you think might result from the hearing Sen. Durbin held?

RABBI RACHEL KAHN-TROSTER: I think he could introduce federal legislation to study prisons and the use of solitary confinement in prisons run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. There's hope that the hearing will galvanize state efforts to close supermax prisons. The governor of Illinois just announced that he's going to be closing the Tams supermax prison in Illinois and encourage other states like Mississippi and Maine are out there to follow their lead and that this will become a national trend. So I think there's a lot of work to be done. For 23 hours prior to the hearing, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture held a solidarity fast, and we fasted for 23 hours to symbolize the 23 hours a day that prisoners spend alone, and also because there have been hunger strikes in Virginia and California among prisoners in solitary confinement because a hunger strike is often one of the only ways a prisoner has to protest their condition.

So clearly a lot more attention has to be paid. People don't know this is a problem. They don't know it's out there. They don't understand that many people are released directly from solitary confinement directly into the community; that's part of the federal lawsuit, that there are federal prisoners who are mentally ill who are in solitary confinement who are not being treated for their mental illness because prisoners in the federal supermax prisons don't receive psychiatric medication.

Find information Rabbis for Human Rights North America at rhrna.org and National Religious Campaign Against Torture at nrcat.org.

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