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Durbin calls for limits in use of solitary confinement

Office of Sen. Durbin

At least half of all prison suicides are committed by inmates held in so-called solitary confinement, according to several state and national studies. 

While a first-of-its-kind report on segregation practices in federal prisons shows improvement, with the number of inmates held in solitary confinement on the decline. Still, said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., “There’s still much more work to be done.”

In 2013, when he chaired the Senate subcommittee on human rights, Durbin requested the Bureau of Prisons to examine the human rights, fiscal and safety consequences of solitary confinement.  The recently released report identifies several areas where improvements are needed.

“What this report tells us is (that) we need to bring the professionals in, psychologists who really measure the impact of long-term isolation on the human mind,” said Durbin.  While he agrees solitary confinement is necessary, Durbin also it must also be done carefully.

“There are people who are too darn dangerous to be in the general (prison) population, I get it, and I certainly want to protect the other inmates, prisons guards and others involved, but for some (inmates) it’s being used excessively and has a dramatic negative mental impact and I want to make sure we measure this carefully,” Durbin said.  “Keep in mind, 95 percent of the people in federal prisons will be released some day.”

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • Review the inmates already in segregated housing to identify those who would be better served in a secure mental-health facility.
  • Hire more psychiatric staff, improve diagnoses, and offer more effective treatments
  • Establish separate housing for inmates in protective custody (those being protected from other inmates, such as LGBT individuals or children)
  • Limit the time for how long inmates can be held in solitary confinement
  • Establish a reentry program to ease the transition back into the general prison population.

Prisons can start by looking at the length of confinement. 
“What’s necessary to maintain order? What is too excessive in terms of the impact on the individual?" asked Durbin. "I think that’s a thoughtful calculus to make. There are dangerous people who need to be separated, but many are being punished in a way that has a lasting impact on them.”

The United States currently imprisons more than 2.3 million people, with more than 80,000 inmates in some kind of restricted housing.  Such inmates are frequently held in small cells without windows for up to 23 hours a day and, for some, years at a time. 

Durbin says “The fact remains that the United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the word.”