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Reassessing Solitary Confinement II CCR Congressional Comments Feb 2014

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Reassessing Solitary Confinement II:
The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences
Hearing Before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the
Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights
February 25, 2014
Statement of the Center for Constitutional Rights
Chairman Durbin and Members of the Subcommittee:
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) would like to thank Chairman Dick Durbin and Members of
the Subcommittee for holding this important follow-up hearing on the human rights, fiscal, and public safety
consequences of solitary confinement in US prisons, jails, and detention centers. The June 2012 hearing
before the Subcommittee was a critical step in raising national consciousness about this important human
rights issue. We sincerely hope that this follow-up hearing will result in a fundamental reassessment of the
widespread use of solitary confinement in the United States, and serve as a catalyst to end the brutalizing use
of isolation for unconscionable periods of time in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers.
CCR submitted a lengthy statement1 at the June 2012 hearing that addressed some of the human
rights and constitutional implications of solitary confinement, and the kind of prolonged solitary confinement
that our clients at the notorious Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit in California are suffering in particular.2 We
refer the Subcommittee back to that Statement. Here, we would like to briefly apprise the Subcommittee of
developments in California since the last hearing. While this update focuses on California, it highlights the need
for swift and meaningful Congressional action to limit the use of solitary confinement across the country.
Like prisoners placed in isolation units around the country, prisoners at the Pelican Bay SHU are
confined to windowless cells for between 22½ and 24 hours a day, without access to natural light, telephone
calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational, or educational programming. At Pelican Bay, hundreds of
prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for over a decade; 78 prisoners have languished under these
conditions for over 20 years – in contravention of human rights standards.3 They are retained in the SHU on
the basis of flimsy evidence of “gang affiliation.” Evidence used by the California Department of Corrections

Statement of the Center for Constitutional Rights, June 19, 2012, available at
In May 2012, CCR raised a constitutional challenge to prolonged solitary confinement in a federal class action complaint
on behalf of prisoners at California’s notorious Pelican Bay SHU facility. Ashker et al. v. Brown et al., 09-cv-5796 (N.D. Cal.)
(Wilken, J.). That litigation is ongoing.
As noted in our June 2012 submission, the U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on Torture and other
Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has found that prolonged solitary confinement is prohibited by
Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 1 of the Convention against Torture
and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The U.S. has ratified both the ICCPR and CAT.
Moreover, the U.N. Special Rapporteur has also previously proposed a “15-day deadline for solitary confinement.” Interim
Report of the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment (Aug. 2011).

and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to purportedly demonstrate gang affiliation – and keep these prisoners in brutalizing
conditions for decades at a time – includes appearance on lists of alleged gang members discovered in an
undisclosed prisoners’ cell or possession of allegedly gang-related drawings.
The psychological and physical effects of this prolonged isolation have been drastic. Professor Craig
Haney, who testified before the Subcommittee in June 2012, interviewed a number of prisoners in the Pelican
Bay SHU in the context of our litigation. In a Declaration to the Court, he reported:
The magnitude of the suffering that they have endured, and the full measure of what they
have lost over the course of the last two decades of their lives, is difficult to fathom. They are
all men in their 50s who have matured into middle age without having had any of the adult
experiences that lend meaning to that stage of someone’s life. Because they could not remain
connected in a meaningful way to the social world and social contexts in which they were
raised and from which they came—the network of people and places that in essence, created
them—they have lost a connection to the basic sense of who they “were.” Yet, because of the
bizarre asocial world in which they have lived, it is not at all clear to most of them who they
now “are.” There is a certain flatness or numbness to the way most of them talk about their
emotions—they “feel” things, but at a distanced or disembodied way. The form of “social
death” to which they were subjected has left them disconnected from other people, whom
they regard more or less as “abstractions” rather than as real. Very few of them have had
consistent social visits over the many years during which they have been in isolated
confinement, so they have lost contact with the outside world, with the social world of even a
mainline prison, and with themselves.4
Professor Haney’s observations comport with what is now clearly established about the impact of
solitary confinement. The incidence of suicides, attempted suicides and the development of mental illness are
much higher amongst prisoners in solitary confinement than those held in the general population. A new peerreviewed study published in the American Journal of Public Health has found that the risk of self-harm among
prisoners (such as “ingestion of a potentially poisonous substance or object leading to a metabolic disturbance,
hanging with evidence of trauma from ligature, wound requiring sutures after laceration near critical
vasculature, or death”) is significantly higher for prisoners in isolation units.5 Moreover, as Professor Huda Akil,
a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, recently explained at the American Association for the
Advancement of Science annual meeting, there is an increased understanding that the lack of physical
interaction with the natural world, the lack of social interaction, and the lack of touch and visual stimulation
associated by solitary confinement are each sufficient to dramatically change the brain.6 The drastic effects of
this practice on a prisoner’s brain and personality violate the U.S.’s obligations under the Convention Against


Declaration of Craig Haney, Ph.D., J.D., In Support of Plaintiffs’ Motion for Class Certification, Ashker, Dkt. No. 195-4.
Fatos Kaba, MA, Andrea Lewis, PhD, Sarah Glowa-Kollisch, MPH, et. al, Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm
Among Jail Inmates, 104 AM. J. PUB. HEALTH 442, 443 (Mar. 2014).

In 2011, as a result of the severe psychological distress, desperation, and hopelessness that they
experience from languishing in the SHU for decades, hundreds of Pelican Bay prisoners engaged in two
sustained hunger strikes. Those hunger strikes ended after CDCR promised to engage with prisoners and issue
meaningful reforms to conditions and procedures. But CDCR has failed to so. Hundreds of men are still
languishing at the Pelican Bay SHU, and other isolation units in California. CDCR still uses the same affiliationbased evidence to retain prisoners at the SHU indefinitely. And so, on July 8, 2013, some 30,000 prisoners
went on hunger strike in the largest prisoner protest in history. Many refused food for 60 days. Their protest
resulted in unprecedented media coverage, a visit to California by Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special
Rapporteur on Torture, and a promise by legislators to take action on the issue. Two legislative hearings were
held in Sacramento to address the disgraceful conditions in California’s isolation units, and California
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano has since proposed legislation that could significantly restrict how solitary
confinement is used in California prisons.
Our clients, and many other prisoners, reported that the possibility of death by starvation was a
worthwhile risk to draw attention to their plight, illustrating the gravity of their situation and the need for swift
action on this issue. The prisoners have made five core demands.7 Central among these demands are that
solitary confinement must be used as a last resort, for a determinate period of time, and in response to
specific acts of misconduct; and that it cannot involve torturous and punitive conditions such as deprivation of
natural light, phone calls, physical contact with family, group recreation, educational programming, significant
out-of-cell time that allows for normal human conversations with others, lack of adequate medical care, and
lack of adequate and nutritious food.
We join the many other human rights, civil rights, and prisoners’ rights groups who are submitting
statements today in urging Congress to:

Support increased federal oversight, monitoring, transparency, and funding for alternatives for
solitary confinement;
Require reforms to the use of solitary confinement in federal facilities operated by the Bureau of
Prisons (BOP);
Ensure that the United States fully engages in the international effort to reform the use of solitary
confinement; and
Support rulemaking to reduce the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails, detention
centers and juvenile facilities.

Such measures will be in important step in ending the harmful, and indefensible, use of solitary confinement in
California’s prisons, and in jails, prisons, and detention centers around the country.
With strong leadership, effective policies, and sound practices, U.S. prisons can develop ways to house
prisoners in settings that are less restrictive and more humane than solitary confinement, and thereby meet
international human rights and Constitutional standards. We hope that today’s hearing represents another
important step in that direction.


For a detailed explanation of these demands, please visit