Washington – For nearly 15 years, Damon Thibodeaux lived in near-isolation on death row, locked in a cell 23 hours a day.
Under the watch of armed guards, he had 60 minutes daily to shower, exercise and walk the halls of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, an infamous prison farm known as the “Alcatraz of the South.”
Convicted of a brutal rape and murder he did not commit, Thibodeaux told a Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that at one point he contemplated letting the state execute him, rather than live in solitary confinement.
“I did not want to live like an animal in a cage for years on end, only to lose my case and then have the state kill me anyway,” Thibodeaux said. “I thought it would be better to end my life as soon as I could and avoid the agony of life in solitary.”
Thibodeaux traveled from Minneapolis, where he has lived since his release in 2012, to Washington on Tuesday to testify about the practice of long-term solitary confinement, which is coming under fresh national scrutiny.
Just this month, the state of New York agreed to sweeping reforms to limit the use of the solitary confinement. Several other states, including Colorado, are mulling new guidelines.
No reliable estimates
“It’s a national discussion,” said Charles Samuels Jr., the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and other committee members.
There are no reliable national estimates on how many state and federal prisoners are in solitary confinement, advocates said.
In Minnesota alone, some 578 prisoners were in isolated segregation as of Tuesday.
“Use of segregation is an issue of constant concern and review,” said Minnesota Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sarah Latuseck.
State corrections leaders across the country are re-evaluating their practices, said Samuels, the federal prisons chief.
The executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, Rick Raemisch, told the senators that solitary confinement has been “overused, misused and abused” in prisons nationwide for more than a century. After spending 20 hours in solitary to gain firsthand experience, Raemisch said the experience left him “paranoid.”
“The ‘steel door solution’ of segregation either suspends the problem or multiplies it, but definitely does not solve it,” said Raemisch, the former head of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Raemisch’s predecessor in Colorado, Tom Clements, was gunned down by a former inmate at Clements’ home last March. Authorities said the shooter had been paroled after serving several years in solitary.
Franken expressed concern that mentally ill inmates are disproportionately subjected to solitary confinement, which then exacerbates their illness. He and others said they have moral and economic concerns with the practice.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., cited federal studies that indicate it costs three times as much to keep inmates isolated rather than with the general prison population.
Officials in Mississippi, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin have already taken steps to reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement, witnesses testified Tuesday.
In Minnesota, Republican state Sen. Warren Limmer, a former corrections officer from Maple Grove, said solitary confinement can be a useful tool to isolate inmates who are at risk of harming others. Limmer said he has not encountered tales of abuse in Minnesota, but is open to ideas for reforming the state’s laws.
“Long-term, isolated confinement in a cell — it seems a little draconian,” he said.
‘Hope and courage’
It was July 21, 1996, when Thibodeaux, tired, hungry and terrified, cracked under the pressure of a nine-hour interrogation and falsely confessed to sexually assaulting and killing a 14-year-old girl.
Her uncle was once married to Thibodeaux’s mother.
Thibodeaux tried to recant his confession, but a jury found him guilty of both crimes less than three months later.
In his Senate testimony on Tuesday, Thibodeaux shared stories of eating rotten vegetables, enduring triple-digit temperatures in the summer and being put on display like an animal during prison tours.
“I saw men lose their minds, he said in his written testimony. “Some screamed at all hours of the night.”
After so many years alone, with little social contact, Thibodeaux told the committee members that he still has trouble connecting with people. Since leaving prison, Thibodeaux has earned his GED and now works as a long-haul truck driver.
“You’ve turned your tragedy into a story of hope and courage,” Franken said.
Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell