Demonstration in solidarity with the prisoners at Pelican Bay in California. The demonstration took place on July 9 to support inmates on a hunger strike. (Photo: Judy Greenspan), a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Solitary confinement 'is driving men insane,' exonerated convict testifies
Solitary confinement is 'inhumane,' former death row inmate Anthony Graves tells a Senate panel considering reforms. The hearing follows a lawsuit over the practice in California.
By Jamie Goldberg, Washington Bureau
10:45 PM PDT, June 19, 2012
WASHINGTON — For most of his 12 years on death row, Anthony Graves lived in what he called an 8-by-12 "cage." To see outside he would stand on top of his rolled-up plastic mattress and look through a small window at the top of the concrete wall in the back of his cell. He spent 22, sometimes 24, hours a day in this room.
"Solitary confinement does one thing: It breaks a man's will to live and he ends up deteriorating. He's never the same person again," said Graves, who served over 18 years in a Texas prison before being exonerated of all crimes in 2010.
Speaking at what was described as the first congressional hearing about solitary confinement, Graves told a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee that the practice was "inhumane and by its design is driving men insane."
Psychological studies indicate that approximately a third of prisoners in solitary confinement suffer from mental illness and 50% of prison suicides occur in solitary confinement, said Craig Haney, a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz.
This month, the Center for Constitutional Rights sued the state of California for its practice of isolating prison inmates suspected of having gang affiliations. The lawsuit focuses on 300 inmates who have been held at Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit for more than a decade.
Charles Samuels, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told the committee that inmates were only placed in solitary confinement to protect the safety of the prison population. The bureau attempts to limit time spent in solitary confinement, which is not supposed to be used for seriously mentally ill inmates, he said.
"Inmates who are disruptive or aggressive to others endanger the security of our institutions," Samuels said. "Removing and segregating them from the general population allows us to continue to operate institutions."
Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the committee chairman, said he planned to introduce legislation that would reform solitary confinement in federal institutions.
"I worry about those that end up in isolation for extended periods of time, who are subject to mental stress like none of us can imagine, and then go home to the general population," Durbin said.
The emotional scars of solitary confinement still haunt Graves, who has trouble sleeping and often cries at night.
"We as American citizens are driving other American citizens out of their minds," Graves said.