Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Historic Senate Hearing on Solitary Confinement May Result in Improved Living Conditions for LGBT Inmates

On Tuesday, June 19th, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held the first-ever hearing on solitary confinement. Presided over by Senate Majority Whip and Subcommittee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL), "Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences" investigated the psychological and mental impact of solitary confinement on inmates during their imprisonment and after their release. More specifically, the hearing highlighted the human rights abuses faced by prisoners in solitary confinement as well as state reforms that have been undertaken in an attempt to improve prisoners’ living conditions.

The United States incarcerates more individuals than any other democracy in the world. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. is home to almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Statistics from the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London show that the U.S. has nearly 2.3 million people behind bars. Although many prisoners are subject to various degrees of safety risks during their incarceration, LGBT prisoners in particular face an even greater threat. In fact, 67% of LGBT prisoners in California alone have been assaulted while in prison, as reported by Just Detention International (JDI), the only organization in the U.S. with the sole goal of ending sexual abuse in detention facilities. As a result, many LGBT persons are placed in solitary confinement as a means of “involuntary protective custody.”

The economic costs of placing a prisoner in solitary confinement are expansive. A July 2011 Advocacy Toolkit prepared by the ACLU National Prison Project showed that the annual cost of placing an individual in solitary confinement in the state of Arizona in 2007 was approximately $50,000 per year compared to only about $20,000 per year for the average prisoner. “In Maryland, the cost of housing a prisoner in the state’s segregation units is on average three times greater than a general population facility; in Ohio it is twice as much and in Texas the costs are 45% greater.”

With statistics as shocking as these, it comes as no surprise that—as the parents and friends of LGBT individuals—this hearing was so groundbreaking. Not only is solitary confinement taking a toll on our nation’s economy, it is taking a major toll on our morale as well. This was best illustrated by Anthony Graves’ testimony, in which he recounted his story of spending 18 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit, 10 of which were on death row in solitary confinement. Now a criminal justice reform advocate and founder of Anthony Believes, Graves detailed the dehumanizing treatment of prisoners and the “degrading” conditions of his living environment while in solitary confinement, conditions that “break a man’s will to survive.” By the end of his account, Graves’ words had new meaning: “Solitary confinement makes our criminal justice system criminal.”

Take Action: Congress must act as quickly as possible to protect both LGBT and straight inmates from the injustices they often face if placed in solitary confinement. Yesterday’s hearing was a monumental first step in accomplishing this goal but the fight is not over. Please take action now and express your concerns about solitary confinement to your members of Congress. With your help, Chairman Durbin may just be able to garner enough support to draft legislation that would force the Federal Bureau of Prisons to change its attitude regarding solitary confinement’s pitfalls. After all, as Chairman Durbin pointed out in his opening statement, “America leads the fight for human rights throughout the world.” It is time to alter the way our country treats its prisoners so that such practices align with our national values. Let’s make it happen.