“Solitary confinement is a cruel and psychologically damaging form of punishment,” Warren said in an interview. “And we are talking about people who have not yet been convicted of anything.”
The Massachusetts Democrat, a member of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s leadership team, He said that while some limited uses of solitary confinement are justified, he is concerned that law enforcement officials are deploying it to “punish” the January 6 defendants or “break them into cooperating.”
Durbin, who also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, shares his sentiments and expressed surprise that all of the defendants arrested on January 6 were in so-called “restrictive housing.” While his advocacy for the rights of rioters charged as criminal defendants is unlikely to change the Justice Department’s handling of those cases, it is a notable case of prominent progressives using their political influence to amplify their calls for criminal justice reform including on behalf of Donald Trump supporters who besieged the entire legislature in January.
Durbin, who has long tried to eradicate solitary confinement, told POLITICO that such conditions should be a “rare exception,” for accused insurgents or any other prisoner.
“There has to be a clear justification for that, in very limited circumstances,” he said.
DC government officials say the pandemic has already dramatically limited freedom of movement in the jail where most of the January 6 defendants are held. Indeed, the entire jail has been subject to strict lockdown procedures since the start of the pandemic, a determination that has sparked a broader controversy over prisoners’ rights. But restrictive housing is a maximum security designation, and the blanket designation for Capitol defendants, which is not expected to decline even as pandemic-era restrictions do, is a remarkable decision for a large group. of inmates who have not yet been tried. his alleged crimes.
When asked about the concerns of Democratic senators, a spokesman for the DC Department of Corrections touted the growing number of educational programs and limited access to amenities now offered to inmates.
“We appreciate the concern, patience and support of our neighbors as we work to keep everyone safe within the DOC, as well as to support the public safety of everyone in the District,” said spokeswoman Keena Blackmon.
Warren and Durbin’s interest in the conditions faced by defendants arrested on January 6 comes amid a massive push by the Justice Department to arrest and prosecute the hundreds of people who violated the Capitol and threatened to transfer peacefully. power to the Biden administration.
Prosecutors and judges considered dozens of men locked up in DC jail as the most egregious participants in the January 6 violence, a state that hardly seems to sympathize with them. However, as their numbers have increased, the plight of these defendants has drawn the attention of federal judges and defense attorneys.
Warren and Durbin, of course, were also the targets of the same troublemakers they are now speaking about. In fact, one detained defendant, Ronald Sandlin, is accused of being one of the first to attempt to breach the Senate chamber, entangling with Capitol Police officers outside the gallery doors just as senators were escaping to safety. .
Sandlin recently read a statement in court describing the conditions in which he is detained as “mental torture”.
When another defendant, Lisa Eisenhart, challenged these conditions as unconstitutional last month and demanded a transfer to another jail, the DC government defended her decision in court.
“A policy that is reasonably related to a legitimate government objective in running a correctional facility does not amount to punishment, even when the policy applies to an inmate on remand,” City attorney Stephanie Litos said in a presentation. recent that recognized the city policy applied to all detainees in pretrial detention on January 6.
After the City’s legal filing, Judge Royce Lamberth rejected Eisenhart’s challenge. (She was later released after an appeals court ruling undermined the government’s case for her arrest.) But the longer the Capitol defendants languish (prosecutors say it could be months before they fully scrutinize the evidence they have obtained from the insurrection), the louder they are raising the alarm about the toll their price has taken. isolation.
“This is not normal. It is not normal to isolate people and make them eat on the floor,” said Marty Tankleff, a defense attorney representing two detained defendants, Edward Lang and Dominic Pezzola.
Tankleff, who was jailed for nearly two decades on a murder conviction before his 2008 exoneration, urged other lawmakers who deem the conditions of the January 6 defendants unfair to contact him.
Meanwhile, attorneys for a host of other accused rioters say their clients’ conditions have made it nearly impossible to conduct genuine attorney-client meetings. Two defendants contracted Covid in DC jail, and one, Ryan Samsel, claims he was beaten by a prison guard, leaving him with permanent eye damage. That incident is under investigation, according to judges and federal authorities.
At a hearing last month, detained riot defendant Richard Barnett, accused in part of breaking into President Nancy Pelosi’s office and posing for a now-infamous photo with his feet on his office desk, lamented the conditions he faces. while awaiting trial.
“I’ve been here a long time. … It’s not fair, ”Barnett said. You’re letting everyone else out I need help.”
Others have filed complaints about access to necessary medications or health monitoring, prompting judges to intervene. One, Jacob Chansley, won a transfer to a prison in Alexandria, Virginia, after the DC jail said it was too onerous to provide him with organic food that he claimed was necessary to adjust to his spiritual practice.
Some January 6 defendants have argued that there is a racial component to their treatment: Most are white, some affiliated with white nationalist groups, while the majority of DC inmates and prison guards are black.
Judge Paul Friedman said last week that those concerns “are not necessarily illegitimate.”
“It may be that some of the people arrested on January 6 are white supremacists” or are perceived to be white, he added.
Those detained for insurrection are not completely isolated from the outside world. While in their cells, they have access to tablets that they can use to exchange messages with friends and family. They may also see other defendants rioters during the daily hour they are given outside their cell, although it is also their only opportunity to shower, exercise and contact their lawyers.
But as complaints from the defendants increased, so did the participation of federal district court judges in Washington. Judge Emmet Sullivan indicated last week that he planned to meet with officials from the DC Department of Corrections to discuss the conditions of the detainees on January 6.
Although he did not disclose the results of that meeting at a hearing this week, Sullivan notably encouraged a defendant’s attorney to seek his confinement in Georgia, where he was arrested. In that state, Sullivan noted, the defendant would not necessarily be placed in solitary confinement by default.