On June 19, 2012, a first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement was held by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. Below is the testimony submitted by AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt.
Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director
American Humanist Organization
Senate Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights
Hearing on Reassessing Solitary Confinement
June 19, 2012
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to submit testimony on behalf of the American Humanist Association concerning the harmful use of solitary confinement in our nation’s federal prisons, jails, and detention centers. We are encouraged that a growing number of states across the nation are reassessing this practice and implementing policies to limit its use. In light of the high cost of solitary confinement and its diminishing returns, we are grateful for the Subcommittee’s timely review of the federal system’s use of isolation today.
The American Humanist Association is an educational organization that strives to bring about a progressive society where being good without gods is an accepted way to live life. We are accomplishing this through our defense of civil liberties and secular governance, by our outreach to the growing number of people without traditional religious faith, and through a continued refinement and advancement of the humanist worldview. Humanism encompasses a variety of nontheistic views (atheism, agnosticism, rationalism, naturalism, secularism, and so forth) while adding the important element of a comprehensive worldview and set of ethical values—values that are grounded in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, informed by scientific knowledge, and driven by a desire to meet the needs of people in the here and now.
Across our nation prisoners, inmates, and detainees are being confined in a small cells for 22-24 hours per day for weeks, months, even years. Many studies have documented the detrimental psychological and physiological effects of long-term solitary confinement, including hallucinations, perceptual distortions, panic attacks, and suicidal ideation. Considering this severe harm, we strongly believe prolonged solitary confinement is a violation of the inherent dignity in every human being.
The use of solitary confinement has increased dramatically in the last few decades. The Commission on Safety and Abuse in American’s Prisons noted in their report, Confronting Confinement, that from 1995 to 2000, the growth rate of segregation units significantly surpassed the prison growth rate overall: 40% compared to 28%. Rather than a last resort, solitary confinement has become a default management and discipline tool.
The drastic rise in solitary confinement has cost us financially, as the daily cost per inmate in a solitary confinement unit far exceeds the costs of housing an inmate in lower security facility since solitary confinement units require individual cells and significantly more staff. The success of several states such as Mississippi, Maine, and Colorado in maintaining prison security while reducing their use of isolation demonstrates that solitary is not the only, or best, option.
Further, we must not neglect the larger public safety impact. The negative effects of prolonged solitary confinement harm our communities, as demonstrated by the fact that prisoners who are freed directly from solitary confinement cells are significantly more likely to commit crimes again. Successful reentry of these citizens to our local communities therefore requires preparation for release while they are still incarcerated. This is why the American Humanist Association recent sent a letter along with faith groups to the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies asking Congress to expand programming options, such as job training and drug rehabilitation programs, for current inmates.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, the American Humanist Association believes strongly that the United States should do everything it can to reverse our nation’s harmful and expensive reliance on solitary confinement. We have a moral obligation to uphold the dignity and the mental health of those currently incarcerated. To that end, we would strongly support your leadership in sponsoring legislation that would limit the use and length of solitary confinement. We implore you to immediately take steps to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement. Your hearing today is a very important effort in doing that, and we thank you for the opportunity to contribute to it.