Abused, Overused, and Rarely Discussed: Solitary Confinement in Virginia

By Hope R. Amezquita, Legislative Counsel

The Virginia General Assembly for 2012 is underway, and while there are a lot of important issues to be debated, legislators tend to focus on those that are most visible to the public, such as the budget and transportation, or those that advocacy groups demand to be heard, such as reproductive rights and access to the polls.  Many other important issues, especially if potentially controversial, are often quickly and quietly set aside by legislators, who would rather they not become part of the public discussion.

One such issue in Virginia is the extensive, unnecessary, and counterproductive use of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons.  Long neglected and rarely discussed, solitary confinement has recently become a topic in the media, and now three legislators have finally introduced a bill to investigate the practice in Virginia.

Whether or not the bill will pass in 2012 is up in the air, but now that the issue has garnered some attention, it will at the very least be an important part of the legislative discussion this year.

Solitary confinement is the most dehumanizing and devastating punishment meted out in U.S. prisons.  It is a 23 hour per day lockdown, often paired with sensory deprivation and complete isolation.  Inmates eat alone, have no group activities, and the only interaction a prisoner has with another human is when a tray of food is slid under the cell door.

The most common misconception about solitary confinement is that it is reserved for prisoners who are the “worst of the worst” and for situations in which no other options are available.  However, it was recently revealed that a large number of prisoners are in solitary confinement and that the reasons they are there have little to do with accepted correctional philosophy.

The Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) admits that 1,800 Virginia prisoners are in solitary confinement and that many of them have been there for years, some for decades.  Nationally, an estimated 25,000 prisoners are in isolation, meaning that Virginia’s rate of solitary confinement is roughly three times the national average.

Medical and legal experts argue that prolonged isolation increases suicide rates, depression, decreased brain function and hallucinations.  It seems that we are finally learning that solitary confinement is the antithesis of what these prisoners need to be rehabilitated and to possibly re-enter society one day.

Most troubling is the use of solitary confinement for inmates with mental illness.  DOC admits that nearly 30% of prisoners in solitary confinement have been diagnosed as mentally-ill, although that is probably an understatement.  And no one knows how many prisoners go into solitary confinement without mental illness only to develop some form of it as a result of the conditions of confinement.

Doctors say solitary confinement is especially problematic for those who are mentally ill, and the courts have consistently held that prolonged use of solitary confinement on mentally-ill prisoners violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  Yet, Virginia prisons continue to blithely embrace the practice.

Solitary confinement is no longer off the radar.  Other states have begun to pass laws limiting its use, and Virginia should do the same.  HJ 126, introduced by Delegates Patrick Hope and Charniele Herring and Senator Adam Ebbin, is only a study of the issues, but at the very least it will give us a clear picture of solitary confinement in Virginia and let us know what the consequences are.

Studies show us that prison systems which emphasize rehabilitation over cruelty and that offer mental health treatment make us all safer by promoting reintegration of former prisoners into society and reducing recidivism.   It also saves tax dollars, an idea that should resonate with legislators.

You can help increase awareness of solitary confinement by signing the ACLU pledge here.  And if you or someone you know has been affected by solitary confinement, please tell us your story.

See also the Washington Post’s editorial published on January 15, 2012.