By William Fisher

This news may come a tad late for Nicholas James Yarris, and may be greeted with a combination of hope and disgust. Hope that things are going to get better. Disgust that it’s taken a generation to take the first step.

What is this big news?

Dick Durbin, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, announced that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has agreed to a comprehensive review of the use of solitary confinement in its prisons.

The study will include the fiscal and public safety consequences of the controversial practice and will be carried out by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). NIC plans to retain an independent auditor to examine the use of solitary confinement, which is also known as restrictive housing. NIC is an agency within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, effectively controlled by appointments by Attorney General Eric Holder.

BOP spokesman Chris Burke said, “We are confident that the audit will yield valuable information to improve our operations, and we thank Senator Durbin for his continued interest in this very important topic.”

Prisoners in isolation are often confined to small cells without windows for up to 23 hours a day. Durbin’s office said the practice can have a severe psychological impact on inmates and that more than half of all suicides committed in prisons occur in solitary confinement.

In Durbin’s state of Illinois, 56 percent of inmates have spent some time in segregated housing.

“The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world, and the dramatic expansion of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can’t ignore,” said Durbin, who chaired a Senate hearing on the use of solitary confinement last year. It was the very first such hearing ever held in Congress.

And it is a subject about which Nicholas James Yarris knows a little something. He spent 23 years in solitary confinement as a death row prisoner in Pennsylvania before his exoneration through DNA testing in 2003. The Innocence Project was instrumental in securing his release.

Here’s what Yarris said:

Having spent an astounding 8000-plus days locked within a cell 23 hours a day, I have witnessed or understood every form of deprivation or sensory starved confinement one can know.

There are two features to solitary confinement that I wish to address here in this statement.

First, the most degrading mental breakdown to men comes from the physical confinement. In the three decades I spent watching new prisoners come to death row in Pennsylvania, I saw with little variation, the breakdown of the personality of men initially entering death row. This occurs when all structure from your previous life hits full stop and you are left with ordered times for every facet of your care.

Combined with intentional cruelty inflicted upon men in maximum-security settings, makes most men break down in their first two years. I entered death row at age 21, being the second youngest man on death row in my home state at the time in 1982.

In subsequent years, I saw death row swell in numbers from 24 in 1982, to 250 in 2004 by the time I was set free. I saw endless processions of men enter death row only to see that within two years each one either committed violence on others, self harmed or had serious mental breakdowns and required long-term medications to keep them stable.

Of the three men executed by Pennsylvania, two were heavily medicated psychiatric patients with long-term mental health issues.

I have witnessed numerous suicide attempts and 11 successful suicides. I myself have not only attempted my own suicide at age 21, but later in my incarceration, in 2002, I asked to be executed rather than to continue being held in endless degradation.

It was only because of my asking to be executed that the DNA tests I sought for 15 years had been forced upon the state. I was not let out of solitary confinement until the day I was set free. I was exonerated by DNA in July of 2003 and was not released until January 2004. In the last months I was stripped of all death row privileges and was placed in an administrative/disciplinary housing unit where I was allowed nothing at all in my cell.

I was brought before the prison administration of Green County Prison in Pennsylvania once DNA had been used in court to remove all of my death row convictions. I was told that I posed a threat to the staff because in the years confined within solitary confinement, having my hand crushed by a guard or other things done to me made them fear me. I was told that they feared I would lash out at them because they could not accept that anyone.

For all of Pennsylvania’s efforts to hold me in solitary confinement because I was so dangerous was, in the end, a facade. I make this last point not to be facetious, but to point out the reality that every prisoner at some point is going to get out, either on his feet or not. I am able to look at what was done to me and see beyond the draw of anger or pain. Not everyone is going to feel as I do, and they are going to be worse in society than they were before we subjected them to solitary confinement.

I wonder just how much arm-twisting Dick Durbin had to engage in to get the prison bureau to agree to this study. But Durbin’s reputation is that, when he has the sniff of his target in his nostrils,  he can be short, sharp and unforgiving.

That this study might actually get started and finished is good news. But taking a generation to reach the start-point should trigger a healthy dose of skepticism. From testimony given at Durbin’s Senate hearing, we get a strong sense that solitary confinement is not a top priority for the current head of the prisons bureau, Charles Samuels. At the hearing, he was unable to tell the senators how many inmates were currently in solitary in the Federal prison system. While Samuels offered no figures for the total number of prisoners the BOP holds in isolation, in 2010 a BOP spokesperson told CNN that there were more than 11,000 inmates in “special housing”—a common euphemism—out of a total prison population, at that time, of about 210,000, it was reported by Mother Jones. Since that time, the prison population has continued to grow.

Samuels says solitary is “a deterrent and it works,” before admitting his agency has never studied the issue. Yet the federal prison system is a serious offender when it comes to the use and abuse of solitary.

MOJO went on to write, “A former corrections officer who rose through the ranks at the BOP, Samuels came off as a consummate bureaucrat. (His predecessor Harley Lappin, forced to resign after a drunk driving incident, now works for the nation’s largest private-prison corporation.)

Samuels quickly made his position clear: “Segregated housing,” as he called it, is a necessary part of prison practice, and is not used excessively in the federal system. It’s not a “preferred option,” Samuels said, but he went on to say he believes that it helps stop violence and other bad behavior in prison.

Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have completed a number of major studies of prisoners and detainees in many local, state and federal facilities, including those run by private contractors. Their conclusion is that inmates “confront conditions that are abusive, degrading and dangerous. Soaring prison populations due to harsh sentencing laws—which legislators have been reluctant to change—and immigrant detention policies coupled with tight budgets have left governments unwilling to make the investments in staff and resources necessary to ensure safe and humane conditions of confinement. Such failures violate the human rights of all persons deprived of their liberty to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

David Fathi, the Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said, ” The [BOP] is the nation’s largest prison system with over 215,000 prisoners, and has been using solitary confinement at an alarmingly high rate. Similar reviews in state prison systems have led to dramatic reductions in solitary confinement, generating millions of dollars in taxpayer savings. We hope and expect that the review announced today will lead the Bureau to significantly curtail its use of this draconian, inhumane, and expensive practice.”

And lest any of us get carried away with enthusiasm, it would be prudent to remember that our nation’s capitol

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt's agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the international affairs area in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He began his working life as a reporter and bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Associated Press in Florida. He now reports on a wide-range of issues for a number of online journals.