This week, the ACLU of Virginia and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Mr. Nicolas Reyes.

Mr. Reyes is a prisoner in Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison who has been held in solitary confinement in a small, concrete cell for between 22 and 24 hours a day, every day, for approximately 12 and a half consecutive years. He is routinely deprived of basic needs, including showers, recreation, and even meals. On the few occasions when he has been allowed to leave his cell, he has been required to submit to humiliating cavity searches. He has lost nearly 50 pounds while in solitary confinement, and his mental health has deteriorated greatly — the predictable outcome of being isolated for approximately 300 times the outer limits of international human rights law with hardly any meaningful access to mental healthcare.

As horrifying as these conditions would be for anyone, another factor makes Mr. Reyes’ solitary confinement especially isolating and egregious: Mr. Reyes cannot speak or read English in a prison that refuses to accommodate Spanish speakers. As a result, Mr. Reyes has virtually no communication with other people, lacks access to mental health services, and the only means the Virginia Department of Corrections allows inmates to “work their way” out of long-term segregation: its self-touted “Step-Down Program.”

Created in 2011, the Step-Down Program requires prisoners to complete self-reflective journals and other lessons before they can enter general population. As implemented, however, prisoners report the program is beset with problems, including a lack of transparency and clear benchmarks for progression, and can serve as an excuse for officers to retain prisoners in solitary confinement who no longer pose a threat.

Most disturbingly, because the program is only offered in English, it is altogether meaningless for people like Mr. Reyes who cannot read, write, or speak the language. As a result, prison officials keep Mr. Reyes and perhaps others in solitary confinement despite having acknowledged repeatedly that he does not pose a threat to the safety and security of the institution.

In May, the ACLU of Virginia issued a report on the harms perpetrated by Virginia’s continued use of solitary confinement. The report  recommends that Virginia limit its use to rare and exceptional cases for a maximum of 15 consecutive days in accordance with international human rights standards and ban the practice altogether for prisoners with mental disabilities or who are members of other vulnerable populations. In response, VDOC denied  the existence of solitary confinement in their prisons, and published an op-ed trumpeting the Commonwealth’s supposed correctional successes, including the Step-Down program -- the very program keeping Mr. Reyes in isolation. VDOC claimed further that there were no seriously mentally ill offenders in restrictive housing. The facts of Mr. Reyes’ case disprove these claims.

No person should be mistreated or forced to endure the conditions that Mr. Reyes has faced every day for more than twelve years.

Solitary confinement remains overused in Virginia and nationwide, despite the practice's well-known psychological and physiological consequences, which can begin to set in within days and can be devastating when the isolation is prolonged. Nationally, less than five percent of prisoners are housed in solitary confinement; yet, half of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement. 

Mr. Reyes alleges in his lawsuit that his treatment at Red Onion violates his human rights under the United States Constitution and federal statutes, including the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment and his right to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. His solitary confinement also violates federal civil rights statutes, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and his right to be free from national-origin discrimination under the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

No person should be mistreated or forced to endure the conditions that Mr. Reyes has faced every day for more than twelve years. We filed this suit to bring an end to these discriminatory and cruel practices for Mr. Reyes, and to shine a light on the wide gulf between the Department of Corrections’ rhetoric and its actual practices.

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