Damon Thibodeaux is embraced by Derrick James, himself a former death row inmate, following a press conference in New Orleans in September, 2012. Thibodeaux was put in prison for the rape and murder of his cousin and spent nearly 15 years in solitary confinement on death row before he was exonerated through DNA evidence. Michael Democker/The Times-Picayune/Associated Press
Damon Thibodeaux spent 15 years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison, waiting for an execution that never happened thanks to an exoneration in 2012 that released him from his tiny cell and back into society.
Imprisoned for the murder and rape of his cousin, Thibodeaux lived in a cell measuring eight feet by 10 feet and was allowed out for one hour a day. Three times a week he was allowed to breathe fresh air outside, but still within a cage. The winters were freezing cold, the summers boiling hot, human contact was fleeting and the food rotten. He witnessed men “lose their minds.”
Thibodeaux would hear inmates screaming at all hours of the night, while others stared blankly at the wall. Among the prisoners who were heavily medicated, some tried to save their pills so they could commit suicide. Feces were smeared around cell walls.
To escape what he calls a “hopeless existence,” Thibodeaux almost gave up on his legal fight to prove his innocence and was prepared to face execution because he couldn’t bear the conditions. His lawyer convinced him to keep going.
“In solitary, there’s nothing to live for,” Thibodeaux told a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in February. “It’s torture pure and simple no matter what else we want to call it.”
Thibodeaux said it’s hard to put into words the mental, physical and emotional damage that the conditions of solitary confinement cause.
“If you treated animals this way, you would get arrested and prosecuted,” he noted in his written testimony.
Some studies indicate that half of all prison suicides happen in solitary confinement units. A disproportionate number of inmates kept there have a mental illness that is exacerbated by solitary. In some cases inmates go in healthy and come out with serious mental health problems.
Advocates see progress
“What does it say about us as a nation that even before the law allows a state to execute a person we’re willing to let it kill them bit by bit and day by day by subjecting them to solitary confinement?” Thibodeaux told the group of senators.
He wasn’t the only former inmate to testify that day before a Senate subcommittee — Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black, was also there, urging Congress to reform solitary confinement practices. Kerman, whose book was turned into a popular Netflix series, is pushing for a ban on putting pregnant women in isolation.
Appeals for reform from human rights, religious, mental health and justice organizations are finally being heard. Change is brewing in the U.S., the country with the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world, when it comes to how prisoners are locked up.
“There’s progress,” said Jamie Fellner, a senior adviser at Human Rights Watch, in an interview. “Things are bubbling up.”
A hearing about solitary confinement on Capitol Hill in itself was viewed as a big step forward. It was the second look at solitary confinement, after an initial hearing in 2012. That first hearing prompted the Federal Bureau of Prisons to launch an independent review — the findings are expected later this year — and to implement multiple changes to reduce the number of inmates in what’s called “restrictive housing” and “administrative segregation” in corrections parlance.
About 215,000 Americans are in the federal prison system, and since the 2012 hearing the department has reduced the number in restrictive housing from 13.5 per cent to six per cent. Roughly 9,400 inmates are currently segregated. Thousands more are in solitary confinement in state and local prisons.
The reasons for separating an inmate from the general prison population typically include disciplinary reasons, if they’ve broken the rules, or if they’ve been deemed the “worst of the worst” and pose a safety threat to guards or other inmates. Suspected gang members are often separated and in some cases isolation is the option for an inmate’s own safety.
Advocates for change say solitary confinement is too often used for illegitimate reasons, and for too long, and there is little oversight and review of why someone is in there in the first place. The conditions and restrictions are often referred to as "inhumane."
'National discussion' is underway
The head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Charles Samuels, told the Senate hearing in February that he is committed to ensuring that it is used appropriately and to reducing its use even further. He said he has consulted with his counterparts in states that are considered progressive in this area and he’s learning from their experiences.
“This is a national issue, this is a national discussion,” Samuels said.
Maine, Mississippi, Colorado and Ohio are among the states that are actively tackling the solitary confinement issue, and a few weeks ago New York’s state prison system agreed to a new set of rules. The reforms, which include curbing its use with pregnant women, mentally ill inmates and juveniles, were the result of a lawsuit.
Lawsuits in other states are driving some of the changes, but so are growing public awareness, advocacy and changes in leadership of corrections systems.
Rick Raemisch, director of Colorado’s corrections system, told the Senate subcommittee that solitary confinement is “overused, misused and abused.” He spent a night in jail to better understand it and wrote about it in the New York Times, drawing even more attention the issue. He felt "twitchy and paranoid" within hours of his 20-hour stay, he wrote.
Colorado has reduced its number of inmates in solitary from 1,451 in 2011 to 597 in January and has saved lots of money — about $15,000 per inmate — in the process.
Raemisch told the hearing he sees an “evolution” happening across the U.S. and that reform will make for safer communities.
There is a growing recognition that releasing someone who has had little or no access to rehabilitative programs, job training, and social contact in general, and who is likely to be angry about what they’ve endured, is perhaps not a wise idea. Some prisons are now introducing step-down programs to help with what some call a nearly impossible transition.
Advocates are cautiously optimistic the tide is turning and that the federal government will follow the examples of Colorado and the other jurisdictions.
“They’re progress along a road to reform which I think is very long and has a long way to go,” said Jean Casella, who co-founded the website Solitary Watch, about the efforts so far. Solitary confinement is nowhere near being abolished, she said. “It’s here to stay for quite a long time.”
Senator Dick Durbin, chair of the subcommittee examining solitary confinement, said at the hearing that safety and cost are good reasons to review the effectiveness of solitary confinement, but beyond that, it’s a human rights issue and more needs to be done to overhaul the system. He’s promising more hearings to keep the pressure on.
“By reforming our solitary confinement practices the United States can protect human rights, improve public safety and be fiscally responsible. It is the right and smart thing to do and the American people deserve no less,” he said.