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Of Hope and Disgust: Solitary Confinement

By       Message WILLIAM FISHER     Permalink
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This news may come a tad late for Nicholas James Yarris, and may be greeted with a combination of hope and disgust. Hope that things are going to get better. Disgust that it's taken a generation to take the first step.

What is this big news?

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Dick Durbin, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, announced that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has agreed to a comprehensive review of the use of solitary confinement in its prisons.

The study will include the fiscal and public safety consequences of the controversial practice and will be carried out by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). NIC plans to retain an independent auditor to examine the use of solitary confinement, which is also known as restrictive housing. NIC is an agency within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, effectively controlled by appointments by Attorney General Eric Holder.

BOP spokesman Chris Burke said, "We are confident that the audit will yield valuable information to improve our operations, and we thank Senator Durbin for his continued interest in this very important topic."

Prisoners in isolation are often confined to small cells without windows for up to 23 hours a day. Durbin's office said the practice can have a severe psychological impact on inmates and that more than half of all suicides committed in prisons occur in solitary confinement.

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In Durbin's state of Illinois, 56 percent of inmates have spent some time in segregated housing. Illinois houses TAMMS, the state's supermax facility in Tamms, Illinois, where it has been reported by numerous journalists, penologists, and academics, that solitary confinement is routinely being used as a management tool. Durbin and other State leaders have been campaigning to close the facility because of its high cost.

"The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world, and the dramatic expansion of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can't ignore," said Durbin, who chaired a Senate hearing on the use of solitary confinement last year. It was the very first such hearing ever held in Congress.

And it is a subject about which Nicholas James Yarris knows a little something. He spent 23 years in solitary confinement as a death row prisoner in Pennsylvania before his exoneration through DNA testing in 2003. The Innocence Project was instrumental in securing his release.

Here's what Yarris said:

Having spent an astounding 8000-plus days locked within a cell 23 hours a day, I have witnessed or understood every form of deprivation or sensory starved confinement one can know.


There are two features to solitary confinement that I wish to address here in this statement.

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First, the most degrading mental breakdown to men comes from the physical confinement. In the three decades I spent watching new prisoners come to death row in Pennsylvania, I saw with little variation, the breakdown of the personality of men initially entering death row. This occurs when all structure from your previous life hits full stop and you are left with ordered times for every facet of your care.


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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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