Broken System: Law Review Symposium Shines a Light on Solitary Confinement


By Shanice Harris

Public Interest Events Social Justice Students Visitors
Senator Durbin delivering keynote

Imagine being stuck in a six-by-eight foot cell for 23 hours a day. No human contact. No light. Filth everywhere. That’s the picture many of the panelists painted during the 2019 Northwestern University Law Review Symposium, “Rethinking Solitary Confinement.”

The all-day event, held on November 8 in Thorne Auditorium, brought together scholars, lawmakers, correctional administration and survivors to discuss the legality of the practice, the effects of solitary confinement on individuals, and strategies for change.

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) delivered the keynote address, outlining his efforts to change the prison system, including getting the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 signed into law by President Obama and convincing President Trump to sign the 2018 First Step Act into law. He also discussed how he handled challenges to his efforts from Trump’s justice department, especially from former attorney general Jeff Sessions before his resignation. The two men often clashed on the topic of solitary confinement, he said. Describing the horrors of human isolation, Durbin quoted Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon and staff writer for the New Yorker:

“If prolonged isolation is — as research and experience have confirmed for decades — so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?”

Durbin highlighted the story of Anthony Graves, who was sentenced to death in 1992 in Texas for a crime he did not commit. He was exonerated in 2010 after spending more than 18 years on death row, 16 of which were in solitary confinement. “Solitary confinement does one thing: it breaks a man’s will to live and he ends up deteriorating. He’s never the same person again,” Graves said during a congressional hearing. “I lived under the rules of the system that is literally driving men out of their minds.”

The Symposium’s other panelists included Albert Woodfox, solitary survivor and author of Solitary; Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center; Brian Nelson, solitary survivor and prisoners’ rights coordinator at Uptown People’s Law Center; and Amy Fettig, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

“Solitary confinement is an issue that demands the attention and action of the public at large,” NULR Symposium Editor Emily McCormick said in a press release. “We sincerely hope this event can be a springboard for change.”

At the end of his keynote, Durbin shared his plans on introducing legislation that will reduce the use of solitary confinement in immigrant detention facilities operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the border. “I’ve been at this for a long time … some things have improved, [and still they’re] not nearly where I want them to be. But if you don’t have any patience, for God’s sake, don’t run for the Senate,” he said. “If it’s important, stick with it.”