Damon Thibodeaux spent 23 hours a day for 15 years in solitary confinement. On Tuesday he shared the stark details of his incarceration in front of a Senate subcommittee.
“Life in solitary is made all the worse because it’s a hopeless existence,” said Thibodeaux, who was exonerated of rape and murder in 2012. “It is torture pure and simple.”
His cell in a Louisiana jail was 8-by-10 feet with three solid white walls, a toilet, sink, a bed, desk, and chair. Thibodeaux says he had five total visits in his 15 years in solitary. He called the practice inhumane. “I see no reason to subject anyone to this treatment,” Thibodeaux said. “Even if they are guilty of crime and the worst of the worst.”
Thibodeaux was among a diverse group of people, including prison directors and former inmates, testifying on the issue of solitary confinement before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional, Civil and Human Rights. Though all witnesses agreed that the measure is sometimes necessary, particularly when it comes to the safety of prison communities, they were unanimous on the need for reform.
Rick Raemisch, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, recently penned an op-ed for the New York Times in which he described 20 hours spent in solitary. On Tuesday, he recalled the experience in front of the subcommittee, “As I sat in that cell for 20 hours I thought, this isn’t the way you treat an American.”
Colorado is among the many state prison systems that have been reforming their use of solitary confinement amid public pressure. New York is the latest to adopt sweeping reforms of the practice. The federal system, however, is trailing behind. According to a Government Accountability report from May 2013, the population of solitary confinement increased faster than the general prison population between 2008 and 2013. But since the first hearing on this issue in 2012, the bureau has reportedly decreased the segregated housing population by 25 percent. About 6.5% of the 215,000 federal prison inmates are in some form of restrictive housing.
Charles Samuels, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), attempted to defend the practice, saying though he does not condone keeping prisoners in segregated housing units for small infractions, they will always need to separate inmates who pose a serious threat to the general population. “I have had inmates tell me if you take me out I will kill someone,” Samuels said. “I have a duty and an obligation to protect staff, to protect inmates.”
Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the subcommittee, pressed Samuels on the BOP’s handling of mentally ill inmates. At one point, he noted, there were only two psychologists who dealt directly with those in solitary confinement. Samuels responded that there were now about five psychologists within the BOP system who counsel inmates held in solitary confinement. He promised that an upcoming report would provide a “roadmap to mental health treatment” for the 4 percent of the federal prison population who suffer from a serious mental illness.
Piper Kerman, the author of the memoir-turned-Netflix-hit Orange is the New Black, testified that though she never spent time in solitary confinement during her 13-month stint in federal prison, women behind bars describe it as a “prison within a prison.” Kerman read from the written testimony of Jeanne DiMola, whom she says spent one year of her six-year sentence in solitary confinement. “I felt sorry I was born,” DiMola wrote. “Most of all I felt sorry that there wasn’t a road to kill myself because every day was worse than the last.”
Sen. Durbin told TIME after the hearing: “We’ve made dramatic progress in our conversation with the Bureau of Prisons and Mr. Samuels from our first hearing. What’s he’s talking about is a rather dramatic reduction in the number of inmates who are in segregation and taking a look at the standards for those who are in. This is progress and I think he’s making a serious effort.”