Quotes from Solitary confinement legislative hearings
The United States holds far more prisoners in segregation or solitary confinement than any other democratic nation on Earth. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2005 U.S. prisons held 81,622 people in some type of restricted housing.
Christopher Epps, first appointed commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections in 2002 by then-Governor Ronny Musgrove, who is a Democrat. Since then he’s been reappointed by two different Republican governors, former Governor Haley Barbour, current Governor Phil Bryant. Commissioner Epps is the longest serving commissioner in the history of the agency.
As the president-elect of the American Correctional Association, Commissioner Epps will begin serving his term in 2013. He’s also previously served as the president of the Southern States Correctional Association. He sits on a number of boards and committees, and received a long list of awards and honors.
Received his Masters degree in Guidance and Counseling from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Mississippi Valley State University.
Commissioner Epps, thank you for joining us today and please proceed with your testimony.
Thank you, Senator, and I appreciate the invite.
And let me just say good morning to everyone.
I began my career as a corrections officer and I have held 10 positions up to commissioner back in 1982 when I started. And back then solitary confinement was sparely utilized for the most incorrigible and dangerous offenders. There was very limited space. We only had 56 cells at a place called Mississippi State Penitentiary, known as Parchman.
A tragic murder of a correction officer occurred in 1989, and it prompted construction of a unit called Unit 32 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Unit 32 was a 1,000 bed maximum security unit where all inmates were in lockdown in single cell housing for 23 or 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The unit was opened in 1990 and it was all single cell.
Mr. Chairman, for this hearing today I’d like to use the American Correctional Association term for administrative solitary confinement, and that is a form of generation or separation from general population administered by a classification committee or other authorized group when the continued presence of an inmate in general population will pose a threat, a serious threat, to life, property, self, staff or other inmates, or to the security to orderly running of the institution.
I was convinced after operating Unit 32 that the culture at Parchman, that inmates should remain in administrative segregation until they demonstrated over time that his behavior had changed and he was no longer a threat to staff, other offenders and public safety. And in this case it could be for many years.
And then for some, it was not until they was released from prison or they died in Unit 32. And the prison was easier to enter, but it was almost impossible to be released without exemplary behavior.
Along came mandatory (ph) sentencing in 1995, where inmates had to do 85 percent of their sentence regardless of their behavior, and the increased incarceration of mentally ill individuals compounded the situation of hopelessness at the prison. Young offenders involved in gangs with long sentences became a large percentage of the population.
Again, Unit 32 is not our condition of (inaudible) single cell. One inmate told me as I was touring the facility (inaudible), said commissioner, you have taken all hope and we have nothing to lose.
Unit 32 condition of confinement was increasing litigated with a 2003 consent decree regarding deferral (ph) (inaudible) in Russel v. Mississippi Department of Correction and a second consent decree in 2007 for (inaudible) offenders (inaudible) v. MDOC.
And May, 2007 violence began to erupt in 32 and continued throughout the summer. We had three homicides and many serious disruptive incident. And we had a suicide.
I finally realized that there was a time for a cha
I finally realized that there was a time for a change. And so we began to reform Unit 32 by thinking outside the box. And we go together with the National Institute of Correction as well as the ACLU and we collaborated with Dr. James Austin (ph) and we came up with a valuable classification system.
And what came out of that was we had many inmates that was over classified. In addition to that we hand picked staff and we gave staff a 20 percent increase in pay for working in the max unit.
We also implemented multiple disciplinary routines to make decision regarding the (inaudible). We was also able to develop programs for those who was in (inaudible). Programs such as group counseling, alcohol and drug, life skills, anger management, they was all started for offenders.
We was able to use all of these tools and put them in our tool bag and the Mississippi Department of Corrections administrator said reforms resulted in a 75.6 reduction in the AGSIG (ph) population, from over 1,300 in 2007 to 316 by June 2012.
Because Mississippi told (inaudible) populations, 21,982 right now, that means that 1.4 percent are currently in AGSIG (ph), and out of that number, 188 are participating in program.
To me, it’s real simple as it relates to AGSIG (ph). One, you have to have in place a genuine documented classification system. Two, you have to have programs in place. Three, you have to have a visit in place to make sure that only the right people can go to AGSIG (ph). It has to be myself, my deputy commissioner of the institution, or the director of classification to put you in there to approve (ph).
And in addition to that, over time we was able to save $5.6 million by all this reclassification and tool (ph). Correction is no different than any thing else in our nation. These cells have to be used as high cost river (ph) state in Mississippi to house inmate on AGSIG (ph) cost $102.27 a day, where as a medium security inmate it cost $43.72 a day.
Correction, I think, we as correctional leaders must realize that we have to be — to be successful we have to always be willing to change and listen to all the stake holders involved in the criminal justice system. We cannot take a one side approach.
And I have been most successful when I’ve made decisions that was in the best interest of all. Corrections is like climbing a mount (ph), we never get to the top we ought to continue the climb and do the very best we can.
Mr. Chairman, I thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today, sir.
Craig Haney is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. And he’s director of their legal studies program. Since the late 1970s, professor Haney has been one of the leading experts on the psychological effects of prison isolation and solitary confinement.
He’s conducted systematic in depth assessments of hundreds of solitary or supermax prisoners in different states. He’s also testified as an expert witness about the psychological impact of solitary confinement in several land mark federal cases.
He was recently appointed to the National Academy of Sciences Committee in studying prison conditions and prison policy. He served as consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice, California State Legislature and many others.
He received his Ph.D. in psychology and a J.D. from Stanford University. Professor Haney the floor is yours.
Senator Durbin, thank you for the opportunity to participate in this historic hearing.
I am someone who has probably spent almost as much time inside our nation’s prisons and jails over the past 30 years as I have inside the classroom as my beautiful home university.
This has included inspecting dozens of solitary confinement units across the country, and interviewing as you said many hundreds of men and women who were confined in their cells on average 23 hours a day. Many for years, even decades.
I brought some photographs to illustrate what solitary confinement looks like and how it is practiced now in the United States that your staff has kindly agreed to show.
Many isolation prisons are stark and foreboding structures. The cell blocks are typically small and are sometimes overseen by armed correctional officers.
The cells themselves are often scarcely larger than the size of a king sized bed. Prisoners thus eat, sleep, and defecate each day in areas just a few feet apart from one another.
It’s hard to describe in words what such a small space begins to look like, feel like, and smell like when someone is required to live virtually their entire life in it.
Because contact visiting is prohibited in solitary confinement, prisoners never touch another human being with affection. Their only regular so called interactions occur when corrections officers place food trays on the slots at their doors. The same slots where prisoners are first handcuffed any time their cell doors are open.
Indeed the only time they are physically touched is when being placed in mechanical restraints. Leg irons, belly chains, and the like. They are escorted by no fewer than two and sometimes as many as five correctional officers any time they are taken out of their unit.
The one hour a day outside of their cells is termed yard time. But it occurs in a place that barely resembles a yard. It consists instead of an exercise pen or cage or a concrete enclosed area that prevents any view of the outside world.
There is a disturbingly high concentration of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement as you’ve heard. If they are fortunate enough to be in a unit that provides them with treatment they are usually unfortunate enough to receive it in a treatment cage or in several of them in a unique form of group therapy.
As you mentioned earlier, Senator, your colleague, Senator McCain has characterized solitary confinement as an awful thing. Correctly noting that quote, “it crushes your spirit, and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
Stuart Andrews is partner at the law firm of Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough in Columbia, South Carolina. He’s the head of his firms South Carolina health care group and former chair person of the firm’s pro bono program.
He serves on a number of statewide task force on health care policy in South Carolina. And among his previous posts, he was director of the South Carolina Legal Services Association, Chairman of the South Carolina Legal Services, Chairman of the South Carolina State Board of Education.
He received his bachelors degree from Erskin (ph) College, his J.D. from the University of South Carolina School of Law. Senator Graham asked that he be part of this panel and I’m more than happy that you’ve joined us.
The Nelson Mullins law firm represents a class of inmates with serious mental illness in South Carolina prisons, many of whom have spent significant time in solitary confinement.
I am appearing today on behalf of that class and its guardian ad litem Joy C. Jay (ph) as well as on behalf of protection and advocacy for people with disabilities, the South Carolina non profit organization charged by federal and state law to protect and advocate for the right of people with disabilities.
After years of investigations, reports, and negotiations the inmate class and PNA (ph) filed suit in South Carolina state court in June, 2005 against the South Carolina Department of Corrections alleging violations of the South Carolina constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and seeking injunctive relief to require the provision of adequate mental health services to our class inmates.
After more than six years of litigation a bench trial was held in March and February of this past year although no ruling has been entered to date.
A major issue in the trial was the extensive reliance by the Department of Corrections on solitary confinement as a means of managing inmate conduct, particularly inmates with mental illness.
During their imprisonment, nearly half of the 3,00 men and women with mental illnesses on the department’s case load had been held in solitary confinement for periods cumulatively averaging almost two years.
The effects of the conditions in solitary confinement can be harmful for anyone, but they particularly expose individuals with mental illness to substantial risk of future serious harm. The applicable 8th Amendment standard applied in systems — systemic conditions cases like ours.
To illustrate some of what we’ve learned about the operation of solitary confinement in our state’s prisons, I would like to call your attention to two individuals who’ve been members of our class.
The first is Theodore Robinson, who was a 50-year-old man with paranoid schizophrenia serving a life sentence. Mr. Robinson’s speech is highly disorganized and he has a history of bizarre behaviors such as drinking his own urine.
Like many people with schizophrenia, he suffers hallucinations and delusions. For example, he believes that, at night, while he sleeps, doctors secretly enter his cell and perform surgery on him. From 1993 through 2005, a period of 12 consecutive years, Mr. Robinson was kept in solitary confinement.
Fifteen days after our lawsuit was filed, however, the department removed Mr. Robinson from solitary and placed him in its psychiatric residential program. Other inmates with serious mental illness have not been so lucky.
In South Carolina, mentally ill inmates are twice as likely as those without it to be in solitary confinement, 2 1/2 times as likely to receive a sentence in solitary that exceeds their projected release date from prison and over three times as likely to be assigned to an indefinite period of time in solitary.
Mentally inmates placed in solitary are not limited to those with mental disorders. Like Theodore Robinson, many are diagnosed with schizophrenia or other serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder or major depression.
A Department of Corrections psychiatrist at Lee Correctional Institution, for example, estimated that 40 to 50 percent of her case load, who were in solitary confinement, were actively psychotic.
Perhaps the single most deplorable solitary confinement unit in the South Carolina Prison system is the cell block in Lee Correctional Institution known as Lee Supermax. On February 18, 2008, an inmate names Jerome Laudman was found in a Lee Supermax cell laying naked without a blanket or mattress, face-down on a concrete floor in his own vomit and feces.
He died later that day in a nearby hospital. The cause of death was reported as a heart attack, but hospital records noted hypothermia with a body temperature upon arrival at the hospital of only 80.6 degrees.
Mr. Laudman suffered from schizophrenia, mental retardation and a speech impediment. According to his mental health counselor, he had never acted in an aggressive or threatening manner.
On February 7, 2008, 11 days before his death, Mr. Laudman was moved to Lee Supermax reportedly for hygiene reasons because he refused to take a shower although no one later admitted to ordering the move.
On February 11th, one week before Mr. Laudman’s death, a correctional officer saw him stooped over like he was real sick or weak. The officer noted Styrofoam trays piled up inside his door that had not been collected. He considered notifying a unit captain or administrator, but was discouraged by his supervisor.
On the afternoon of Mr. Laudman’s death, two nurses were called to Mr. Laudman’s cell. They observed him lying face-down in his own waste and vomit, but still alive. The Styrofoam trays were still there with rotted food. The conditions were so foul that the nurses and the correctional officers, whom they summoned, refused to enter the cell to remove Laudman, who was still alive at that point.
So, instead, they called for two inmate hospice workers who took 30 minute to get there, at which point they removed the body and, later, that day in the hospital, Mr. Laudman died.
In South Carolina, a disproportionate number of mentally ill inmates are placed in solitary confinement. Many are actively psychotic, conditions are atrocious, mental health services inadequate, stays are inhumanely long.
Theodore Robinson was fortunate. After 12 consecutive years in solitary, he was transferred to a psychiatric residential program, but, coincidentally, two weeks after we filed lawsuit against the department. Jerome Laudman was not so fortunate. After 11 days in Lee Supermax, he died of neglect in a cold, filthy cell.
For other inmates with mental illness in solitary confinement in South Carolina, the story is ongoing. Will they receive adequate mental health treatment to stabilize their mental illness? How well will the solitary prepare them to handle the transition back to the community?
These questions and their implications to the Constitutional rights of all mentally ill inmates in South Carolina remain unanswered today and we thank you and this committee for undertaking them to try to improve and correct them.
Anthony Graves is the next witness. He was imprisoned for 18 years on death row in Texas. A Federal Appeals Court overturned his conviction in 2006. He was completely exonerated in 2010. The Burleson County District Attorney deemed Mr. Graves, “An innocent man.” Texas Governor Rick Perry described Mr. Graves’s case as “a great miscarriage of justice.”
Since his release, Mr. Graves has had the courage to speak out about our criminal justice system. He founded anthonybelieves.com which is dedicated to criminal justice reform. It took courage for you to come here today and we appreciate your testimony. The floor is yours.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. My name is Anthony Graves and 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 (inaudible), the food, 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 x 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.
I had a steel toilet and sink that were connected together and it was positioned in the sight of male and female officers, degrading. I had a small shelf that I was able to use as a desk to write on and eat one. There was a very small window up at the top of the back wall.
In order to see the sky, you would have to roll your plastic mattress up to stand on. I had concrete walls that were always peeling with old paint. I lived behind a steel door that had two small slits in it. The space replaced with iron mess wire which was dirty and filthy.
Those slits were cut out to communicate with the officers that were right outside your door. There was a slot that’s called a pinhole and that’s how you would receive your food. I had to sit on my steel bunk like a trained dog while the officers would play the trays in my slot. This is no different from the way we train our pets.
The food lacks the proper nutrition because it’s either dehydrated when served to you or perhaps you’ll find things like rat feces or a small piece of broken glass.
When I was escorted to the infirmary one day, I was walking past where they fix the food and I watched a guy fixed his food and was sweating in it. That was the food they was going to bring me.
There’s no real medical care. I had no television, no telephone, and, most importantly, I had no physical contact with another human being for 10 of the 18 years I was incarcerated.
Today, I have a hard time being around a group of people for long periods of time without feeling too crowded. No one can begin to imagine the psychological effects isolation has on another human being. I was subjected to sleep deprivation.
I would hear the clanging of metal doors throughout the night or an inmate kicking and screaming because he’s lost his mind. Guys become paranoid, schizophrenic and can’t sleep because they’re hearing voices.
I was there when guys would attempt suicide by cutting themselves, tying to tie a sheet around their necks, overdosing on their medication. Then, there were the guys that actually committed suicide.
I will have to live with these vivid memories for the rest of my life. I would watch guys come to prison totally sane and, in three years, they don’t live in the real world anymore.
I know a guy who would sit in the middle of his floor, rip his sheet up, wrap it around himself and light it on fire. Another guy, who would go out on the recreation yard, get naked, lie down and urinate all over himself. He would take his feces and smear it on himself as though he was in combat.
They ruled he was competent to be executed. I knew guys who dropped their appeals not because they gave up hope on their legal claims, but because the conditions were just intolerable. They would rather die than to continue against under such inhumane conditions.
Solitary confinement, it breaks a man’s will to live and he deteriorates right in front of your eyes. He’s never the same person again. Then, his mother comes to see him. She can’t touch him. She hasn’t touched him in years and she watches as her son sits right there and deteriorates in front of her eyes.
This thing has a ripple effect, OK. It don’t just affect the inmate. It affects his family, his siblings, his children and, most importantly, it affects his mother. I have been free for almost two years and I still cry at night because no one out here can relate to what I’ve gone through.
I battle with these feelings of loneliness. I’ve tried therapy, but it didn’t work. The therapist was crying more than me. She could not imagine how inhumane our system was treating people. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since I’ve been out.
I only sleep about 2 1/2 to three hours at night. And then I’m up. My body has not made the adjustment. I have mood swings that just causes emotional break downs. I don’t know where they come from. They just come out of nowhere.
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. And I cry at night because of these feelings.
I want them to stop. But they won’t. I watch men literally self mutilate themselves. They have to be put on razor restrictions, because if they are given a razor they would cut their own throat — they own neck, wherever they can cut at on their body. They just stand there in front of you and cut themselves.
And this one man in particular that I watched do this, they took him over to what they call the psychiatric ward. A few days later, he hung himself. It’s all because of the conditions.
There’s a man right there sitting on Texas death row right now who’s housed in solitary confinement pulled his eye out and swallowed it. All because of the conditions.
Solitary confinement dehumanizes us all. Thank you, Chairman.
I agree and know that for some prisoners less resilient than he, solitary confinement precipitates a descent into madness. Some isolate prisoners smear themselves with feces, sit catatonic in puddles of their own urine, or streak wildly and bang their fists or heads against the walls that contain them.
In some cases the reactions are even more tragic and bizarre including — including grotesque forms of self harm and mutilation. Prisoners have amputated parts of their own bodies or inserted tubes and other objects into their penises.
An accident can unfortunately be met with an institutional matter of factness that is equally disturbing. Less extreme and much more common reactions include panic attacks, hyper vigilance and paranoia, cognitive dysfunction, hopelessness, and depression, and anger, and rage.
Although solitary confinement certainly does not drive everyone who experiences it crazy, we do know that time spent in these places is often more than merely painful. Moving beyond suffering to placing prisoners at grave risk of psychological harm.
In addition isolated prisoners frequently develop forms of social pathology, ways of being that are functional to surviving the asocial world of solitary confinement, but profoundly dysfunctional when these prisoners are returned to a main line prison or released as most of them are into the free world where they now must interact effectively with others or risk permanent marginalization.
Indeed this enforced asociality and the virtually total lack of training or meaningful programming that isolated prisoners typically receive, can significantly impede their post-prison adjustment, raising important concerns about the affect of solitary confinement on recidivism and public safety.
As prison populations continue to gradually decline in the United States and the nation’s correction system rededicates itself to program oriented approaches designed to produce positive prisoner change, our use of solitary confinement should be radically rethought and restricted. And the resources now expended on it redirected to more humane, cost effective, and productive strategies of prison management.
It is my sincere hope that this committee will help lead the way.