06/21/2012 01:59 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

23-Hour Fast to End 23-Hour Solitary Confinement

I walked out of the Dirksen Senate Office Building Tuesday feeling proud, but at the same time disappointed. I was proud because under the leadership of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights organized a hearing on the use of prolonged solitary confinement in American federal prisons - an often misunderstood and neglected issue. But I was also saddened after hearing the testimony of witnesses who have experienced firsthand the horrors of this kind of treatment.

The day before the hearing, hundreds of people of faith across the nation undertook a 23-hour fast, symbolizing the 23 hours per day that tens of thousands of prisoners, inmates and detainees are warehoused in solitary confinement. As we have seen in recent prisoner hunger strikes in California and Virginia, refusing food is one of the few means prisoners have to protest their conditions in solitary confinement.

After the hearing, representatives and supporters of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture met to break the fast together. Representatives of Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Muslim, Quakers, North American Old Catholic Church, and the Virginia Council of Churches united together to make clear the religious community's commitment to end prolonged solitary confinement.

Although the particular conditions in "segregation" vary depending on the facility, prisoners are typically locked down 23 or 24 hours a day in small cells with no meaningful human contact. Inmates may be allowed an hour of "recreation" (alone) in a caged pen. We confine people in these isolated conditions for weeks, years, even decades on end.

Supporting responsible limits to solitary confinement is not about whether individuals convicted of certain crimes deserve to be sent to prison. Rather, it's about opposing treatment that is so severe that it violates our values as a nation. As Sen. Durbin said as he opened the hearing, "We have an obligation to look in the mirror, to look at our own human rights record."

As Dr. Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, testified during Tuesday's hearing, research consistently demonstrates that the psychological effects of such isolation, particularly among the mentally ill, are devastating. "It renders many people incapable of living anywhere else," he told the Subcommittee.

"The emptiness and idleness that pervade most solitary confinement units are profound and enveloping," Haney writes in his testimony. Further, many prisoners report "experiencing severe and even paralyzing discomfort around other people, engage in self-imposed forms of social withdrawal, and suffer from extreme paranoia; many report hypersensitivity to external stimuli (such as noise, light, smells), as well as various kinds of cognitive dysfunction."

Considering these harrowing effects, limiting solitary confinement is not only right, it is beneficial for us all. Sen. Durbin raised the concern that the majority of prisoners in solitary confinement will eventually be released to the community - released from circumstances in which they have been left to suffer alone to a situation where they have no choice, but to live among other people.

In fact, prisoners are routinely released directly from solitary confinement to the streets. This lack of transition is alarming, and it is not surprising that prisoners who are freed directly from solitary confinement cells have a higher rate of recidivism.

The demonstrated success of several states that have reduced their use of solitary confinement by using evidence-based classification systems has proven that not only are there safe alternatives, but there are more cost-effective options.

Mississippi saved $5.6 million annually as a result of drastically reducing solitary confinement without jeopardizing prison safety, said Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps Tuesday. Other states, including Colorado and Maine, have produced similar results.

The Subcommittee's evaluation of the impact of the federal system's use of solitary confinement on prisoners, correctional staff, our budget, and society at large, demonstrates that the pervasive use of prolonged solitary confinement is wrong both morally and economically. As Sen. Durbin stated, the United States, with more than 2.3 million people currently in prison, has the highest per capita rate of prisoners in the world and more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation on Earth.

Or in the words of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), "We have five percent of the world's population and yet 25 percent of the world's inmates. We need to take a really hard look at our criminal justice system, and we need to make serious reforms."

I am grateful that the religious community broke our fast together after the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. However, our fast was only a means to be faithful to God's calling for justice. It can't be the end of our faithfulness. Our hunger for change will not let up until we see an end to this horror. We pray that Congress not only reassesses solitary confinement, but like a growing number of states across the nation, takes significant action toward ending this harmful, costly and ineffective practice.

I urge people of faith to lead the way in calling for a reversal of our reliance on solitary confinement. We must not cease until Congress and all state legislatures take action to end the pervasive use of solitary confinement.