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Cori Bush Introduces Bill to End “Moral Catastrophe” of Solitary Confinement

“It is not only a matter of justice, but a matter of preserving human dignity,” one advocate said.

A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officer checks on inmates at the Short-Term Restricted Housing Unit of California State Prison, Sacramento, on April 13, 2023.

A coalition of House Democrats, led by Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri), introduced a bill on Thursday that would ban the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, jails and detention centers.

The bill has been endorsed by the Federal Anti-Solitary Taskforce, a coalition of organizations dedicated to ending solitary confinement in federal corrections and detentions centers, along with nearly 150 civil rights and criminal justice organizations.

“Solitary confinement is a moral catastrophe. UN experts have condemned solitary as psychological torture—and that’s exactly what it is,” Bush said in a statement. “I’m proud to lead my colleagues, advocates, and survivors of solitary confinement in introducing this groundbreaking legislation. Together we will save lives by ending this heinous and immoral practice once and for all.”

Senate Democrats introduced a similar bill to reduce the use of solitary confinement last fall, but the End Solitary Confinement Act goes much further. The House bill would ensure that incarcerated people in federal carceral facilities would not be segregated alone for more than four hours. The bill would also mandate that incarcerated people are guaranteed access to at least 14 hours of time outside of their cells a day, including access to seven hours of educational, vocational, financial and mental health programming. The legislation would establish minimum standards for incarceration and incentivize states and localities to end solitary confinement in their facilities.

Incarcerated people who are held in solitary confinement typically spend two days a week entirely in isolation and 23 hours a day in their cells for the remaining five days. The cells, most of which have solid metal doors, are usually 6×9 to 8×10 feet. Meals generally come through slots in the doors. Incarcerated people held in these facilities are usually denied the opportunity to work or attend programming, and are sometimes banned from possessing radios, art supplies, and even reading materials.

William Blake, who spent 34 years in solitary confinement in New York, described his environment in solitary, saying: “Nothing much and nothing new ever happen to tell you if it’s a Monday or a Friday, March or September, 1987 or 2012… I’ve seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get ahold of, even harder to keep ahold of as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU [special housing unit] world.”

The dehumanizing conditions experienced by incarcerated people in solitary confinement cause “severe and often irreparable psychological and physical consequences,” Nils Melzer, a UN Special Rapporteur on torture, said in 2020. “There seems to be a State-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, which may well amount to torture.”’

Roughly 122,000 people are placed in restrictive housing, or solitary confinement, for 22 hours or more a day, according to a report conducted by Solitary Watch, a nonprofit watchdog. Research has shown that solitary confinement disproportionately affects Black and LGBTQ communities;nearly 60 percent of Black men and 85 percent of LGBTQ people who are incarcerated have been placed in solitary confinement

“This practice is traumatic for people subjected to it, harmful to communities and isolating for loved ones,” Bush said in a statement. “Moreover, it is disproportionately inflicted on Black and brown folks, young people, LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized communities.”

In recent years, almost every state has introduced legislation that would restrict or end solitary confinement. Since 2018, bills have been introduced in 44 states that would prohibit solitary confinement for vulnerable groups, such as pregnant people, elderly people, LGBTQ people and people with mental or physical disabilities. At least 33 states have passed these bills.

“With widespread bipartisan public support across the country for ending solitary confinement and with a growing number of jurisdictions introducing and enacting legislation to end or limit the practice, now is the moment for federal policymakers to lead,” said Jessica Sandoval, director of the Unlock the Box Campaign. “Congress must act quickly to pass the End Solitary Confinement Act and President Biden must sign it into law to fulfill his pledge to end solitary once and for all.”

As part of Biden’s 2020 campaign, he promised to enact criminal justice reforms, including “ending the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions.” In May 2022, Biden signed an executive order that included a directive on reducing the use of solitary confinement in the federal prison system, but advocates have said that his actions thus far have fallen short of his campaign promises.

“As someone who has personally endured the torment of solitary confinement, I can attest to the devastating toll it takes on one’s mental and emotional well-being,” said Johnny Perez, director of the U.S. Prisons Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. “I implore Congress to swiftly pass this critical legislation, for it is not only a matter of justice, but a matter of preserving human dignity and restoring hope for those who have been silenced and isolated for far too long across the United States.”

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