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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

Here's one distinction the United States holds: This nation keeps more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic country.

MONTAGNE: Those inmates live for 23 hours a day in tiny, windowless cells. Their food trays are pushed through a metal slot in the door. Prison officials defend the practice.

GREENE: But calls for reform are now growing louder. Many people say solitary confinement has to be reined in, at least when it comes to prisoners who are underage, pregnant or mentally ill.

NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: So many people showed up for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on solitary confinement that lawmakers had to find a bigger room to handle the crowd.

What they heard were these searing words from Damon Thibodeaux.

DAMON THIBODEAUX: Years on end in solitary, particularly on death row, will drain that hope from anyone, because in solitary, there's nothing to live for.

JOHNSON: Before he was exonerated of rape and murder, Thibodeaux spent 15 years in isolation on death row in the Louisiana State Prison, until he reached a breaking point.

THIBODEAUX: After realizing what my existence would be like for years on end, until I was either executed or exonerated, I was on the verge of committing what was basically suicide by state, by voluntarily giving up my legal rights and allowing the state to carry out the sentence of death.

JOHNSON: Ultimately, a lawyer persuaded him to change his mind. Now Thibodeaux is using his story to try to help others.

THIBODEAUX: What does it say about us as a nation that even before the law allows the state to execute a person, we're willing to let it kill them bit by bit and day by day by subjecting them to solitary confinement?

JOHNSON: A growing body of research says most inmates who commit suicide behind bars endure prolonged isolation before they take their own lives.

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: These are human rights issues that we cannot ignore.

JOHNSON: Illinois Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, who led the Senate hearing, delivered a message to corrections officials around the country.

DURBIN: I'm calling for all federal and state facilities to end the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women and individuals with serious and persistent mental illness.

JOHNSON: States from Maine to Mississippi to Texas have already cut the number of inmates who live in prolonged isolation, reducing violence behind bars and saving millions of dollars. It costs three times as much to house a prisoner in solitary as in the general population.

But Charles Samuels, the leader of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, says that some inmates - including violent gang members - pose real threats and need to be isolated. Last year, two federal corrections officials died at the hands of dangerous prisoners, and others, Samuels says, are watching.

CHARLES SAMUELS: If they see that we will lower our standards, we will not hold individuals accountable, it puts our staff at risk. It puts other inmates at risk.

JOHNSON: But for the vast majority of inmates, prison leaders use solitary confinement as a punishment or to make their own lives easier.

Rick Raemisch runs the Corrections Department in Colorado.

RICK RAEMISCH: Administrative segregation, except for the extremely dangerous, is used to allow an institution to run more efficiently. It suspends the problem at best, but multiplies it at its worst.

JOHNSON: That's because at least 95 percent of those inmates eventually get out of prison and return to communities, including one who shot and killed Raemisch's predecessor in Colorado last year, not long after leaving solitary confinement.

For women behind bars, solitary can be a means of control or retribution. Piper Kerman, author of the prison memoir "Orange Is the New Black," says inmates who've been raped by guards often think twice before speaking out, lest they be thrown in solitary.

PIPER KERMAN: The terrible threat of isolation makes women afraid to report abuse, and serves as a powerful disincentive to ask for help or justice.

JOHNSON: Solitary confinement, Kerman says, is a tool of control that's neither humane nor effective.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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