ACLU report criticizes 'solitary confinement' in Va. prisons
The ACLU slammed the state’s practice of putting inmates in “solitary confinement,” saying it’s harmful to inmates
By Peter Dujardin
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The ACLU of Virginia is slamming the state’s practice of putting inmates in “solitary confinement,” saying it’s harmful to inmates — particularly those with mental illnesses — and ineffective at enhancing public safety.
The Virginia Department of Corrections offers little transparency into its confinement practices, the ACLU says. That makes it difficult to ferret out abuses, the organization says, such as people being kept alone for too long, for minor reasons, or well after they have completed requirements to be moved in with other inmates.
“For prisoners with pre-existing mental illness, solitary confinement often causes significant and rapid deterioration,” the ACLU of Virginia said Thursday in a new report, “Silent Injustice: Solitary Confinement in Virginia.” The organization calls the practice “overused, inhumane and ineffective,” and says “it should be severely restricted.”
“Numerous studies confirm that prolonged isolation deprives prisoners of the basic human needs to function, with effects that become noticeable after as little as 10 days,” the report said, saying some inmates’ only human contact in a windowless cell is when the guards come by to slip a tray of food through a slot.
The ACLU called on Gov. Ralph Northam to “sign an executive order banning solitary confinement for members of vulnerable populations” — including those with mental illnesses — and limit isolation to the “international standard” of 15 days.
As of now, the ACLU said, the Department of Corrections has “no policy excluding mentally ill people from solitary confinement,” despite evidence of its harms. The organization wants the practice barred except “in rare and exceptional circumstances, for the shortest duration, with the least restrictive setting necessary.” It calls on the DOC to give inmates written reasons for their isolation, to bar isolation as a form of punishment, and to create an oversight team to review decisions to house inmates alone.
The report spends several of its 67 pages talking about Red Onion State Prison in Wise County.
That’s the SuperMax facility where Jordyn Charity, a 20-year-old inmate from Hampton, was found hanging in his cell on Jan. 4. Charity’s death, ruled a suicide by the state medical examiner’s office, came a few months after he was sentenced to 168 years in a Hampton double murder case — and less than three weeks after he was moved to Red Onion.
Charity’s family, who dispute the state’s suicide finding, said they don’t know why he was being held in segregation, and that he didn’t know how long he’d be there. Charity’s mother, Lysa Stevens, said her son had bipolar disorder, but she’s not sure if he was getting his treatments for it.
Stevens could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The ACLU report defines “solitary confinement” as holding someone in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, “with little to no contact or interaction, with the deprivation of reading material, visits from family and participation of group activities with other inmates,” to include eating.
But the Virginia Department of Corrections asserts it no longer has solitary confinement in its prisons. “We don't have solitary confinement, which is generally characterized as 22-24 hours a day in cell, with little to no stimuli,” spokeswoman Lisa Kinney wrote in an email. “The idea that we have something like that is quite outdated.”
There are state inmates in “restrictive housing,” Kinney said, but those inmates do get external stimulation. “Even those few offenders who are in long-term restrictive housing have out of cell recreation, out of cell classes, in-cell reading materials, access to the phone, visits with counselors and qualified mental health professionals, etc.”
The DOC said Thursday that a “restrictive housing pilot program” began at Red Onion in April 2016, and was implemented DOC-wide on May 1. “The program addresses improved conditions of confinement in the form of individual and group programming, methods to earn good time credit, additional recreation, increased daily out of cell opportunities, behavioral goals for progression out of restrictive housing, and increased reviews by a multi-disciplinary team,” Kinney wrote.
“The Virginia Department of Corrections serves as a national model for the limited use of restrictive housing,” she wrote, adding that “seriously mentally ill offenders can spend no more than 30 days in restrictive housing.”
The DOC says it has 98 inmates in “long-term restrictive housing” — all at Red Onion. Kinney did not immediately respond to a request for how many prisoners statewide were being held in shorter term restricted housing. The amount of time the average DOC inmate spends in restricted housing wasn’t immediately available Thursday.
Kinney also highlighted the DOC’s “Administrative Step-Down Program,” a program that began in 2011 and is designed to integrate inmates back into the general prison population. That program, she said, was recognized by the U.S. Justice Department in 2016.
Brian Coy, a spokesman for Northam, said the governor is reviewing the ACLU report and has not made a decision on signing an executive order on the topic.
The governor’s office released a statement through the DOC, supporting the agency and its leadership. "Under the leadership of Director Harold Clarke, Virginia has become a nationally-recognized leader in reforms that reduce the use of restrictive housing and ensure that inmates are properly prepared to succeed in society when they leave restrictive housing or any corrections environment,” the governor’s office said.
Bill Farrar, the ACLU of Virginia’s director of strategic communications, said the DOC is playing “a game of semantics” by calling isolation “restricted housing.”
“They don’t like that term (solitary confinement), because it’s an ugly term,” he said.
Discrepancies into what’s happening in the prisons, Farrar said, “is why we need data collection” — including “why inmates are there, how long they’ve been there and how long they are going to be there.” Reports of abuses of the program, he said, come from inmates and their families. “It’s the same stories over and over,” he said. “But without (the data), they are free to play this game of semantics.”
Farrar added: “If what DOC officials are saying is true, then certainly they would have no objection to an executive order from the governor banning them from doing the terrible things they say they aren't doing.”
©2018 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)