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Before Lawmakers, Former Inmates Tell Their Stories


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Some members of Congress are calling for a more humane prison system. They're proposing a ban on solitary confinement for certain prisoners - among them, juveniles, pregnant women, and the mentally ill. Here's Illinois Democratic Senator Richard Durbin at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today.

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: By reforming our solitary confinement practices, the United States can protect human rights, improve public safety, and be physically responsible. It is the right and smart thing to do, and the American people deserve no less.

BLOCK: NPR's Carrie Johnson followed that hearing. She joins me here in the studio to talk though the issues now. Hey, Carrie.


BLOCK: And it was just last week that we saw New York announce sweeping changes to solitary confinement for inmates in state prisons there. Why are we hearing so much about this practice right now?

JOHNSON: In the last couple of years, a lot of different factors have come together. There have been efforts by states to save a lot of money and reduce violence in prisons and also a critical massive advocacy by the ACLU and some researchers. And now, today, we saw some bipartisan interest in the U.S. Senate.

One fact that came out today was that it cost about $78,000 a year to house somebody in the federal prison system in solitary. That's three times as much as it cost to put somebody in a regular prison unit. And, Melissa, here, as in so many areas of law and order around the country, states are leading the way. Mississippi and Maine have been early adopters of reforms in this area. And even in Texas, state lawmakers last year have passed legislation to study solitary confinement.

BLOCK: Now, with this hearing today, I gather there were some former inmates who served in solitary confinement who told their stories. Sounds like really dramatic testimony.

JOHNSON: It was incredible. Lawmakers heard from Damon Thibodeaux who served nearly 15 years in solitary in the state penitentiary in Louisiana, Melissa, before he was actually exonerated of rape and murder of his cousin. Here's what he had to say.

DAMON THIBODEAUX: Humans cannot survive without food and water. They can't survive without sleep, but they also cannot survive without hope.

JOHNSON: Thibodeaux said, at one point, he just considered giving up and dying. And testimony like that, of course, is certainly going to help fuel some calls for change.

BLOCK: But that ban that they're talking about wouldn't necessarily include an inmate like Mr. Thibodeaux, right, if it's just juveniles, women, the mentally ill?

JOHNSON: Not necessarily. But a broader point in the hearing was that administrative segregation or solitary confinement is often overused as a disciplinary tactic. And people need to rethink that strategy across prisons.

BLOCK: Carrie, one of the most popular reforms that's being talked about is the idea that prisoners who have been kept in solitary shouldn't be released back into the community right away. Why not?

JOHNSON: There's a stark example last year of the Colorado corrections official who was actually killed by an inmate released straight from solitary. Officials note that something like 95 or 97 percent of all prison inmates ultimately come back into the community. So there's a lot of need for services and transition and mental health help.

BLOCK: Well, how likely is it that states or the federal government are going to make big changes when it comes to solitary confinement?

JOHNSON: It's not going to be easy, especially after hearing today from the president of the union that represents federal corrections guards. Eric Young says that isolation or segregation is a vital tool to prevent anarchy in prisons, and he pointed out that today is the one year anniversary of a federal corrections guard being killed in Pennsylvania by an inmate in a very high-security facility there. There's really a need for guards, he says, to be empowered to make decisions about safety.

BLOCK: OK. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.