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Durbin Discusses Prison Reform Efforts During Senate Judiciary Subcommittee Hearing on Prison Labor in America

Durbin: I believe every Member of Congress every two years should do two things: visit a foreign country … and secondly, visit a prison

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, discussed his efforts to date to reform the federal prison system, including conducting rigorous oversight and reducing the use of solitary confinement, at a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism hearing entitled “An Examination of Prison Labor in America.”

“I’ve tried in my time on the Judiciary Committee, and in the few years that I have been Chair, to have a focus on incarceration. Much of it stems from an article that I read many years ago by Atul Gawande, a medical doctor who is now working in the Administration, who wrote about the impact of incarceration – particularly solitary confinement – on prisoners and what impact it has on them as human beings. I have taken up the cause with some success,” began Durbin.

Durbin discussed prison reform in the hearing with Mr. Terrance Winn, a prison reform advocate who was incarcerated for 30 years before he became eligible for parole as a result of the U.S Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana.

Durbin began by asking Mr. Winn, “You are actively involved in a project to try to help others who face that challenge [to reenter society following incarceration]. Tell me about that.”

Mr. Winn outlined his work as the founder of a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform, connects incarcerated people with legal assistance, and assists formerly incarcerated individuals with reentry, saying: “I have an organization called PIPES, which stands for Priorities, Intentions, and Practical Exchanges. We do wraparound services for guys that's incarcerated coming home. We also speak on parole board hearings … we do letter writing campaigns … we do prayer vigils. We also mentor kids that’s facing incarceration or on a trajectory of going to prison, and we try to recorrect the way that they are thinking so they don't make the bad decisions that we made to go to prison. We offer them programs so they can be better human beings and more productive human beings.”

Durbin continued, asking: “What’s the highest priority for the ex-offender? What are they looking for when they’re finally released?”

Mr. Winn stressed the importance of employment following incarceration, saying: “Mostly a job. Nothing else really matters because you are playing catch up … everybody that's coming home is trying to take care of themselves. A lot of them come home with a debt that never stops. You have to pay parole fees. So, you need employment to pay those fees, so that you don’t go back to jail. So, then you need transportation and a phone for communication. It is hard … where second chances are really not fitted for you. If you got that ex-offender on your back, you don't really get a job, so a lot of times we have to make our own jobs.”

Durbin then discussed the importance of cooperation from the business community to employ formerly incarcerated individuals, asking: “Ex-offenders in Chicago have some helping hands. We have a congressman – Congressman Danny Davis – who is one of the best when it comes to finding ways to give incarcerated people a second chance. … Some of these people basically need identification cards so they can prove who they are, because they have been gone for so long that they don't have a driver’s license … I think we should go out of our way to give high praise to those employers who employ the ex-offenders … Have you seen that kind of cooperation from businesses?”

Mr. Winn said, “There are certain businesses that do the same thing. You really have to just put them a part of your network, so that you could get them.”

Durbin concluded with a plea he makes to his colleagues regularly, saying: “I believe every Member of Congress every two years should do two things: visit a foreign country, because I don't believe you come to appreciate your home until you leave it, and secondly, visit a prison. We make so many decisions, particularly in the Judiciary Committee, about crime, the enforcement of crime, enforcement of law … and how we are going to teach somebody a lesson or make our country safer. We are doing it based on an image we saw in a movie somewhere, instead of actually visiting a prison and talking to the women and men there. It will change your attitude instantly. I'm glad I had a chance to have a conversation with you today.”

Video of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here for TV Stations.

As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Durbin has prioritized oversight of BOP and established a new Committee practice of holding annual BOP oversight hearings.  In April 2021, the Committee held a BOP oversight hearing with then-Director Carvajal to address chronic understaffing issues and other concerns. Later, Durbin called for a new, reform-minded BOP Director after an Associated Press report that found that BOP is a “hotbed of abuse, graft and corruption, and has turned a blind eye to employees accused of misconduct.” Then-Director Carvajal’s resignation was announced less than two months later.

In September 2022, the Committee held its second BOP oversight hearing under Durbin, which was BOP Director Peters’ first time testifying before Congress since taking over as head of the Bureau. At that hearing, Durbin pressed Director Peters about abuse in federal prisons. In September 2023, Durbin held his third BOP oversight hearing. 

Last month, Durbin introduced two bills, the Solitary Confinement Reform Act and the Restricting Solitary Confinement in Immigration Detention Act, which would limit the use of solitary confinement by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), U.S. Marshals Service, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Durbin and a group of Senate Democrats also urged Department of Homeland Security Secretary (DHS) Alejandro Mayorkas and ICE Acting Director Patrick Lechleitner to phase out the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention. Earlier this year, Durbin issued a sharp rebuke of BOP’s failure to eliminate the overuse of solitary confinement.