On June 19, 2012, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights began a hearing on “Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences.” Underscoring the significance of this event, Subcommittee Chairman Dick Durbin, in his opening statement, said “This is the first-ever Congressional hearing on ‘solitary confinement,’ also known as supermax housing, segregation, and isolation, among other names.”
Denver Law’s Laura Rovner, associate professor and director of clinical programs, attended the hearing in Washington, D.C. In written testimony submitted to the subcommittee four days prior to the hearing, she told the U.S. Senators, “The American public is entitled—and perhaps obligated as a matter of civic responsibility—to be informed about the state of our prisons.” Professor Rovner’s testimony drew on her experiences supervising student lawyers in the law school’s Civil Rights Clinic (CRC) in a series of cases challenging conditions encountered by prisoners living in solitary confinement. “Through my testimony,” she wrote members of the subcommittee, “I seek to share some of the information about ADX (the federal “supermax” prison where prisoners are held in solitary confinement) that our legal clinic learned in the course of working with men who are held there….”
That work is substantial, establishing for Denver Law’s CRC, according to one publication, a “reputation for challenging the use of long-term isolation.” Under the supervision of Professor Rovner and Lecturer Brittany Glidden, student lawyers in the CRC have represented prisoners in Colorado prison and in federal prison held in solitary confinement. Currently, they represent Troy Anderson, a mentally ill prisoner held in isolation for more than a decade at Colorado State Penitentiary, the state “supermax” prison, seeking improved mental health treatment and better conditions for Mr. Anderson.
“If the U.S. is to hold itself out to the world as a standard-bearer of human rights,” Professor Rovner wrote in her testimony, “we must look closely at the use of solitary confinement here at home, including and especially in our federal prisons.” Subcommittee Chairman Durbin struck a similar note in his opening statement: “[W]e have an obligation to look in the mirror and consider our own human-rights record,” he said. Senator Durbin held out this possibility for results to arise from the hearing: “As a result of the work we have done preparing for this first-of-its-kind hearing, I am working on legislation to encourage reforms in the use of solitary confinement. We can no longer slam the cell door and turn our backs on the impact our policies have on the incarcerated and the safety of our nation.” -rw