Ahead of U.S. Senate Hearing on Solitary Confinement, Survivors of Solitary Confinement & Allies Rallied to Urge President Biden and Congress to Enact the End Solitary Confinement Act

April 16, 2024 2:00 pm

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WASHINGTON — Today, ahead of a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Legacy of Harm: Eliminating the Abuse of Solitary Confinement, survivors of solitary confinement, family members, and allies, held a rally and press conference urging President Biden and Congress to Enact the End Solitary Confinement Act, S. 3409/H.R. 4972.

Please see extensive written testimony for the hearing by leading national experts on solitary here, including the Federal Anti-Solitary Taskforce (FAST), Dr. Bandy Lee, Dr. Pablo Stewart, Dr. James Gilligan, Dr. Craig Haney, Dr. Terry Kupers, Unlock the Box Campaign, and Nicole Davis. Today’s hearing comes on the heals of a Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General report documenting that nearly half of all deaths by suicide in federal Bureau of Prisons custody (46 percent) take place in solitary, a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office documenting the widespread and racist infliction of solitary in BOP prisons, new investigative reporting about staff sexually assaulting women in BOP prisons and then locking them in solitary as retaliation for reporting those assaults, and a new report documenting the increased use of solitary in federal immigration detention.

Maria Morris, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said: “It’s important to understand just how dangerous and harmful solitary confinement is. The most extreme harm is suicide. During one 15 month period, 15 people died by suicide in the Alabama prisons. Thirteen happened in solitary confinement. Nearly half the suicides in the BOP occur in solitary confinement, even though solitary makes up about 8 percent of the population. Throughout the country, people are left in solitary confinement for months, years or even decades. One of my clients – a young man who was seriously mentally ill and developmentally disabled – was repeatedly placed in solitary confinement for harming himself – and was in solitary confinement when he ultimately died by suicide. Another client is a man with schizophrenia. He was kept in solitary confinement for seven years. He routinely heard voices telling him that he needed to harm himself to keep his sister from being raped. He would then start to bang his head on his cell bars, he would be pepper sprayed, decontaminated, and then go back to the same cell, where he would again bang his head on the bars. This happened over 50 times one year. Eventually he was placed in a mental health unit where he was able to have social interaction and be out of his cell, and he almost immediately was able to stop hurting himself. Solitary confinement is a dangerous, widespread practice in the Bureau of Prisons and ICE immigration detention, and it must be stopped.”

Natasha White, Director of Community Engagement, Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR), said: “The End Solitary Confinement Act is not just a piece of legislation; it is a beacon of hope for countless individuals trapped in a cycle of suffering. Human rights should apply to all humans. Imagine spending years in a small, windowless cell, with minimal human contact and little to no access to sunlight or fresh air. This was my reality for four long years, and the damage it inflicted on my mind and spirit is beyond words. I witnessed suicides, endured sexual abuse at the hands of correction officers, and felt the crushing weight of isolation every single day. My personal journey is intertwined with that of my ex-husband, who spent a staggering 12 years in solitary within Bureau of Prisons facilities. The truth is that solitary confinement leaves individuals broken and irreparable, emotionally disconnected and often filled with rage and despair. It pushes many to the brink of suicide as a desperate attempt to silence the constant torment within their minds. President Biden once promised to end the torture inflicted upon incarcerated individuals, but where is that commitment now?”

Rev. Kendal L. McBroom, Director of Civil and Human Rights at the General Board of Church and Society, The United Methodist Church and Board Member, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said: “We are grateful to have our many partners and friends here with us as we seek to advocate and show support for the End Solitary Confinement Act. As a general agency of the United Methodist Church, a denomination seeking to follow Jesus the Christ, we are compelled to stand in solidarity with our siblings today and throughout the world in calling for an end to solitary confinement. Not only is this in our Book of Resolutions, but this commitment comes from very words and witness of the Christian Bible. It is our duty and aim to ensure the well-being and fair treatment of all persons, including those who find themselves within the carceral system. It has been too long for the family that has had to deal with the aftereffects of their loved one coming home and readjusting to life. It has been far too long for child trying to understand their parent post experiencing the torture of solitary confinement. It has been too long for the human being who has suffered under this heinous practice. It is time to pass the End Solitary Confinement Act.”

Jessica Sandoval, National Director of the Unlock the Box Campaign, said: “Passage of the End Solitary Confinement Act is not merely a legislative necessity, but a moral imperative. Solitary confinement is torture that inflicts profound psychological pain and devastating mental, physical, and emotional harm. The President and U.S. Congress must dismantle these atrocious acts of government violence that betray our values of dignity and justice. We urge swift action to change this punishment paradigm and uphold our commitment to human rights.”

Eddie Ellis, Co-Director of Outreach & Member Services at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and survivor of solitary in Bureau of Prisons custody, said: “I am a survivor of solitary confinement. I spent 10 years in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is very harmful. There is nothing helpful or good about it. I thank God that I survived those dehumanizing conditions. Solitary confinement is inhumane and destructive. I have been home for 18 years and I still have residual effects of solitary. We need to ban solitary confinement. It causes devastating mental and physical harm, and even death. Nearly half of all deaths by suicide in the Federal Bureau of Prisons occur in solitary confinement. It’s time to ban solitary confinement and do more to help those who are there.”


On the Harms of Solitary Confinement: Solitary confinement causes devastating and deadly harm, worsens safety for everyone, and is inflicted disproportionately on Black people, Latine people, Native people, other people of color, and LGBTQ people. Solitary causes people to engage in self-mutilation & suicide. It causes heart disease, anxiety, depression, and psychosis. Research shows one or two days in solitary leads to significantly heightened risk of death by suicide, overdose, and other causes. Nearly half of all deaths by suicide in the Bureau of Prisons take place in solitary. Even short periods of time in solitary, measured in days and even hours, can cause devastating harm. On the day of her death in solitary confinement, Layleen Polanco had been locked in her cell for two or three hours before she died.

On the Widespread Use of Solitary: Prisons and jails alone lock over 122,000 people daily in solitary across the U.S. Federal prisons alone lock over 11,000 people in solitary each day. People are locked in solitary for days, weeks, months, years, and beyond. ICE has also locked people in solitary confinement over 14,000 times in the last five years, including many for months at a time and for over a year. People are often locked in solitary as retaliation for raising complaints or cover-up for staff physical/sexual abuse, and people often face more staff abuse while in solitary.

On the Benefits of Alternative Forms of Separation: The evidence is clear: what actually works to reduce violence is the exact opposite of solitary: pro-social program-based interventions involving full days of out-of-cell group engagement, like the CAPS/PACE programs as originally operated in NYC, the Merle Cooper Program in NYS, and the RSVP program in San Francisco jails. For example, the RSVP program included people who had carried out acts of assault, sexual assault, and other violent acts, and led to a precipitous drop in violence among participants to the point of having zero in-jail incidents over a one year period and reducing re-arrests for violence in the community by 83 percent. Best practices in youth and mental health facilities limit isolation to minutes or hours at most, with positive impacts on safety and people’s health and well-being.

On the Provisions of the End Solitary Confinement Act, S. 3409/H.R. 4972: In line with best practices in youth and mental health settings, the Act will place a firm time limit on the use of solitary confinement of a maximum of four hours to de-escalate emergency situations involving imminent serious physical injury. The bill still allows people to be separated from the general facility population – they just can’t be isolated and tortured. To implement alternatives scientifically proven to reduce violence and better support people’s health, the Act will ensure that all people in federal custody, including in any form of separation/alternatives to solitary, regardless of what they are called, have access to at least 14 hours of daily out-of-cell time, with congregate, meaningful programming and activities without restraints and with at least several other people in group spaces conducive to meaningful human engagement. The Act will also enhance due process protections, create oversight and enforcement mechanisms, and incentivize states to replace solitary with proven alternatives.

On Recent Reports Showing Ongoing Crisis & Urgent Need for End Solitary Act:

  • A Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report documented that nearly half of all deaths by suicide in federal Bureau of Prison custody (46 percent) take place in solitary confinement – what the BOP calls “restrictive housing” – while people in restrictive housing represent approximately 8 percent of those in BOP custody. In other words, this DOJ report documented that people in solitary are nearly six times more likely to die by suicide than others in the prison system.
  • A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office documented the widespread and racist infliction of solitary in BOP prisons, documenting that BOP sent people to solitary over 70,000 times a year and “Black individuals constituted 38 percent of the total BOP population and 59 percent of the SMU placements”.
  • Physicians for Human Rights, Harvard Law School Immigration and Refugee Clinic, and Harvard University Peeler Immigration Lab issued a report documenting the increased use of solitary in immigration detention: “In the last five years alone, ICE has placed people in solitary confinement over 14,000 times, with an average duration of 27 days. … 682 solitary confinement placements lasted at least 90 days, while 42 lasted over a year”. The consequences have been devastating and deadly. As one individual quoted in the report stated, “I have tried to kill myself three times already because of this endless nightmare and the consistent torture of solitary confinement.” The report’s principal recommendation to Congress is to: “Pass binding legislation banning the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention and legislation that will significantly decrease the number of people in immigration detention, including the End Solitary Confinement Act (H.R. 4972/S. 3409) and Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act (H.R. 2760/S. 1208).”
  • New investigative reporting documents the continuing practices of staff sexually assaulting women incarcerated in BOP prisons and then locking people in solitary confinement as retaliation for reporting such abuse. These ongoing horrific practices continue to happen even after other staff had been convicted of the same type of sexual abuse and after women had filed a class action lawsuit about these abuses. Following a court hearing in January where women testified about facing retaliation for reporting sexual abuse, those who testified were then retaliated against again for testifying in court by being placed in solitary confinement.

On Nationwide Polling: Nationwide polling data released by Data for Progress shows widespread bipartisan support for the specific provisions banning solitary confinement contained in the End Solitary Confinement Act. Specifically, voters – including 78 percent of Democrats, 61 percent of independents, and 51 percent of Republicans – support by a +32-point margin: “legislation that would limit solitary confinement to a maximum of 4 hours per day [and] ensure that anyone in solitary confinement receives regular support from medical and mental health staff, and that solitary confinement is used only for emergency situations involving serious physical injury”.

On President Biden’s Unfulfilled Commitment to End Solitary Confinement: President Biden and Vice President Harris pledged to end solitary confinement. President Biden issued an Executive Order on May 25, 2022, directing the Attorney General to report on progress made toward limiting the use of solitary confinement and other forms of restrictive housing within 180 days of the order. Yet, the use of solitary in federal prisons has increased since that executive order.

On the Growing Momentum for Policies Across the Country to End or Limit Solitary: Recent years have seen a massive increase in the number of jurisdictions across the country introducing or passing legislation to end or restrict solitary confinement. New York City jails recently enacted legislation – similar to the End Solitary Confinement Act – to end all solitary confinement beyond four hours immediately following an incident for purposes of emergency de-escalation, and require that all people in the jails, including all people in any alternatives to solitary confinement, have access to at least 14 hours of out-of-cell time with access to out-of-cell group programming and activities. States like New York, Colorado, North Dakota, New Jersey, and Connecticut have all taken steps in recent years aimed at significantly reducing the use of solitary confinement.

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