Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. / Charles Dharapak, AP
WASHINGTON - Leaders of a Senate panel called on federal and state prison authorities Tuesday to ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women and the mentally ill as part of a national reassessment of the harshest method of incarceration.
Citing the country's extensive use of solitary confinement since the 1980s, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the extreme conditions contribute to the gradual deterioration of prisoners' mental health.
Half of all suicides in the nation's prison systems, Durbin said, involve offenders assigned to solitary confinement.
Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels, who oversees the nation's largest prison system, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that 6.5% of the bureau's 215,000 inmates are confined in some form of "restrictive housing.''
Of that number, Samuels said, only one juvenile and 197 women are held outside the general population.
Samuels said highly restrictive measures of confinement should "only be used in the rarest of circumstances.''
"We do not support its long-term use,'' he said.
Across state prison systems, thousands of inmates are held in solitary as either additional punishment for offenses committed in prison or for their affiliation with gangs. It is not uncommon for some to spend more than a decade in such conditions.
Increasingly, states are re-evaluating their methods of confinement. Last week, New York agreed to new guidelines limiting inmates' time in solitary, while effectively banning its use for juveniles.
"This isn't a way to treat an American,'' Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Rick Raemisch told the Senate panel.
Last month, Raemisch spent more than 20 hours locked down in Colorado's administrative segregation unit and published an account of that "mind-numbing'' experience.
"We are failing in this area of our mission,'' he said.
Some prison authorities defended the tactic, saying staffers and other inmates would be put at greater risk if it was no longer available.
"We must be able to restrict and restrain inmates before their behavior escalates,'' said Eric Young, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' Council of Prison Locals, which represents federal prison officers. "We cannot have staff and inmates being targeted for assaults and certainly cannot allow anyone to be murdered without consequence."
Damon Thibodeaux, who spent 15 years in solitary confinement on Louisiana's death row before he was exonerated in 2012, describes the existence as "torture, pure and simple.''
"Being in that environment for 23 hours a day will slowly kill you,'' Thibodeaux said. "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.''
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