“I spent 13 months as a prisoner in the federal system... The longest amount of time I was placed alone in a holding cell was four hours and I was ready to climb the walls of that small room by the end of that.”
That's how author of Orange Is The New Black, Piper Kerman, began her February 2014 testimony at the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearings on solitary confinement. Unlike in the show, Kerman was never actually placed in solitary during her stay at a Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. Still, she witnessed many of the devastating effects of solitary confinement and urged the committee to reform the government's practice of using solitary as punishment.
Kerman's testimony is particularly relevant if you've watched season 3 of Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black." In the new season, multiple characters are sent to or threatened with being sent to the SHU (security housing unit a.k.a. solitary confinement), shedding light on the misuse of solitary and the terrifying mental and emotional effects it has on prisoners.
(Spoiler alert!!) Sophia Burset is sent to the SHU for "her own protection" after she's assaulted for being transgender. Angie Rice is sent to the SHU after accidentally being released from prison and is later let out looking dead behind the eyes. In season two, you watch Piper slowly lose her mind after spending a month in the SHU.
In her testimony, Kerman discussed the devastating impact solitary has on women in prisons across the country. She touched on three main reasons why solitary confinement reform is necessary: the traumatic effect it has on prisoners' mental health, the way solitary is sometimes used as a way to cover up incidents of prisoners being sexually assaulted by guards and the negative impact it has on female prisoners and their children when visitation rights are revoked while in solitary.
Since this 2014 testimony there has been some reform in the use of solitary confinement as punishment for inmates. New York City has ended solitary confinement for prisoners under 21 years old and banned solitary for anyone with a mental illness or disability.
Although NYC has made progress, most prisons throughout the country still use solitary confinement to demean, humiliate and devastate prisoners. On any given day, there are about 80,000 inmates in solitary confinement in prisons around the country.
"Unlike the normal hive-like communities of prison, 24-hour lockdown leaves you in a six by eight cell for weeks or months or even years."
“Very minor infractions could send you to the SHU. They can then keep you there as long as they want, under whatever conditions they choose," Kerman said to the committee. "Unlike the normal hive-like communities of prison, 24-hour lockdown leaves you in a six by eight cell for weeks or months or even years. And this is unproductive for individuals, for prisons institutions and the outside communities, to which 97 percent of all prisoners return.”
In her testimony, Kerman pointed out the differences between women and men’s experiences in solitary, including the fact that women in prison are much more likely to suffer from mental illness than men. Seventy-five percent of women in prisons in the U.S. have a history of mental illness, and throwing them into solitary confinement can only worsen the negative effects of their illness.
“There are egregious examples of solitary confinement being used by prison officials to hide horrific, systemic sexual abuse under their watch."
She also talked about the way the SHU can be used to cover up the sexual harassment and assault of inmates by guards. “There are egregious examples of solitary confinement being used by prison officials to hide horrific, systemic sexual abuse under their watch," she said. "The terrible threat of isolation makes women afraid to report abuse and serves as a powerful, disincentive to ask for help or justice.”
Towards the end of her testimony, Kerman sums up why she's there: “Isolation should only be used when a prisoner is a threat to her own safety or that of others -- not when pregnant or suffering mental illness or for reporting abuse." Amen to that.