Mpls. man describes solitary confinement: 'I saw men lose their minds'

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2014 - 9:28 PM

Minneapolis man exonerated in killing tells Senate panel about his 15 years in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, an infamous prison farm known as the “Alcatraz of the South.”

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Damon Thibodeaux, in the white T-shirt, was embraced by Derrick James, himself a former death row inmate, after his release from prison in ­September 2012. DNA tests proved his innocence in a 1996 murder.

Photo: Michael Democker • Times-Picayune via Associated Press,

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– 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.

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