Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins is a key cosponsor of legislation that, among other provisions, would outlaw psychologically damaging solitary confinement for more than 500 chimpanzees caged for research in federally supported laboratories. In July 2012 the bill bipartisanly passed the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee on its way to a floor vote.
But the legislation, which also protects gorillas and other ape species if they are used for research, doesn’t protect the dominant primate species, Homo sapiens. Experts say at least 80,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in tiny cells in this country.
Some prisoner-rights advocates think it’s ironic when laws give rights to animals that aren’t extended to humans. Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright noted that, for example, “there are existing laws saying how much living space primates should have in captivity.
By contrast, no such laws apply to humans in captivity.”
He concluded: “Sadly, I don’t think most people, at least not in this country, see any connection between animal and human rights.”
Laurie Jo Reynolds, an anti-solitary-confinement activist in Illinois who also is a strong supporter of animal rights, said, “Acknowledging that we must stop inflicting solitary confinement on chimpanzees is also a recognition that we must stop the practice for humans.”
S. 810, the Great Ape Protection Act, “corrects the pain and psychological damage that apes often experience as a result of needless experiments and solitary confinement,” Senator Collins said in a recent statement. Repeated requests to her office for her views on human solitary confinement did not get a response.
But Maine’s First District Democratic Representative Chellie Pingree, who is a cosponsor of a parallel bill in the House, H.R. 1513, agreed that the damaging effects of solitary confinement extend to humans: “A growing number of experts describe it as cruel and unusual punishment, and I agree with them.”
Michael Michaud, Maine’s Second District congressman, is also a H.R. 1513 cosponsor. In repeated attempts, he could not be reached on the question of whether human solitary confinement should also be banned.
A ban or restrictions on prisoner isolation, however, may soon be debated in Congress. In June, Senator Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat and chairman of the Senate’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, presided over the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement. He’s preparing legislation to reform its use.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said he refers to the damaging effects of solitary confinement on humans in his speeches in support of S. 810, but banning isolation of chimpanzees was “really not the impetus” for the legislation.
He said forbidding the invasive experiments chimps are subject to is a more important motivation behind the bill. These include, as the bill’s language states, experiments that cause injury, trauma or death in drug testing, “intentional exposure” to harmful substances, and removing body parts.
But S. 810 would also ban “isolation” and “social deprivation” that “may be detrimental to the health or psychological well-being of a great ape.” The legislation notes that apes are “highly intelligent and social animals.”
Kathleen Conlee, vice president of the Humane Society, pointed to research appearing in the Journal of Trauma & Dissociation that shows how chimps subject to laboratory conditions express Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-like symptoms. Isolation is listed as a common stress.
Chimpanzee PTSD symptoms include violence, self-injury, screaming and “highly anxious states” – symptoms hu-mans often show after long-term solitary confinement.
“Great apes” is a term encompassing gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, gibbons and chimpanzees, but only chimpanzees are currently kept for research, according to the Humane Society. The federal Institute of Medicine has concluded that most chimp research is unnecessary. Violations of the Great Ape Protection Act could result in a fine of $10,000 a day for each animal mistreated.
S. 810’s full title is the Great Ape Protection and Cost Saving Act of 2011. Proponents claim it would save the government $25 million a year by relocating chimpanzees from laboratories to wildlife sanctuaries, which have freer living conditions.
Proponents of ending human solitary confinement also say there are cost-saving reasons to stop that practice. The cage-like cells of “supermax” prisons and prison units are so labor-intensive for guards that they cost two times as much as regular imprisonment, experts say.
Independent Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, like Collins another S. 810 lead cosponsor, was quoted in a recent Humane Society press release: “We remain the only country besides Gabon to continue holding these animals in laboratories as possible subjects for invasive research.”
Similarly, the U.S. is the only nation that practices human solitary confinement in large numbers.
Pingree said it’s time to take a careful look at how prisons use solitary confinement: “Perhaps there are some times when it is important to temporarily isolate a prisoner for his safety or the safety of other inmates, but using solitary confinement as a routine punishment technique is too harsh.”
She added, “If one of the goals of putting people in prison is to rehabilitate, long-term solitary confinement doesn’t advance that goal.”
This article was originally published in the Portland Phoenix on August 22, 2012, and is reprinted with permission.
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