WASHINGTON -- Orange Is The New Black author Piper Kerman, whose book on her stay in a federal women's prison was adapted into a popular Netflix series of the same name, is testifying before the Senate on Tuesday about the use of solitary confinement by the federal Bureau of Prisons.
In an interview with The Huffington Post ahead of her testimony before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Kerman said that BOP's operations deserve a "high level of scrutiny," noting that the agency's operations often aren't looked at as closely as state and local prisons. While the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division often analyzes the operations of state-level prisons, it doesn't take on BOP, which also falls under DOJ's umbrella. The Civil Rights Division declined to send a representative to the Senate hearing on Tuesday.
"It is often hard to hold corrections systems accountable and it is particularly hard to hold the BOP accountable for many reasons, but one of the reasons is that the BOP has much deeper pockets than state correctional systems often do and their budgets are in some respects far less scrutinized than state budgets are," Kerman said. "State lawmakers are really, really on the hook when it comes to expenditures that are made to maintain our enormous prison system, and I think that you see the fruit of that when you see some of the state reforms."
Kerman served time in federal prison on a decade-old charge of helping launder drug money for her then-girlfriend. She was never held in solitary confinement, which BOP refers to as being held in a Special Housing Unit (SHU). But she says she witnessed other women being placed into solitary for very minor infractions. The Washington Lawyers Committee notes that BOP policies allow prisoners to be sent to solitary for six months just for masturbating, and even for using obscene language twice within six months.
"It would be hard to overstate how pervasive the use of solitary is against not just serious transgressions but against very minor infractions, certainly in the BOP in my experience and my observation," Kerman said. "I know many, many women who have spent time in the SHU, many women who have spent potentially short times in the SHU for very minor infractions -- something like having very low-level contraband, something like refusing a direct order from a corrections office -- that can easy land you in the SHU for terms of 30 days and sometimes longer."
Kerman herself wrote about an incident which could have potentially sent her to the SHU, when she accidentally picked up an extra screwdriver that she later tossed into a dumpster, scared she would be sent to solitary.
"If I had been found with that screwdriver, I definitely would have been in the SHU. I was terrified of that," she said.
Kerman says she believes solitary has "no rehabilitative prospects" and should only be used "in the very short term, when someone is a danger to themselves or other folks." Kerman said that overcrowding and the drug war are closely connected to the abuse of solitary confinement within the federal system.
"In no way do I defend the practice of solitary, but you can actually understand why correctional officials sometimes default to it, because they're dealing with such packed facilities," Kerman said. "So if we want to have prisons and jails that might accomplish actual rehabilitation, they have to be less packed with humanity and less packed with low-level offenders and people who don't really belong in prison."