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May 10, 2018

The practice of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons is overused, inhumane, ineffective, and should be severely restricted, according to a new ACLU of Virginia report released today.

The report, “Silent Injustice,” calls for solitary confinement to be banned in state prisons except “only in rare and exceptional cases, for the shortest duration, with the least restrictive setting necessary and only when the prisoner poses a credible continuing and serious threat to the security of others.”

In releasing the report, the ACLU of Virginia called on Gov. Ralph Northam to immediately sign an executive order banning solitary confinement for members of vulnerable populations and to limit it when used to no more than 15 consecutive days, which is an international human rights standard.

Solitary confinement is the isolation of a person in a cell for 22-24 hours a day with little human contact or interaction, and deprivation of reading material, visitation and participation in group activities. Many inmates who are members of vulnerable populations are placed in solitary confinement for their own “protection,” including those with pre-existing mental or physical illnesses. The average time a person spends in solitary confinement in Virginia prisons is 2.7 years, according to the report.

“Despite some attempts at addressing this serious problem, Virginia continues to lag behind the federal government and other states in ending this inhumane practice,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. “This is one of the most serious civil liberties, mental health and public safety issues in the Commonwealth today, and we hope that Virginia Department of Corrections’ (VDOC) collaboration with the Vera Institute for Justice announced in December 2016 will bring an end to this ongoing violation of basic human rights.”

According to the report, solitary confinement exacerbates and even causes mental illness, and violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. It is not known precisely how many people are being held in solitary confinement in Virginia’s prisons because the VDOC does not make public such statistics.

“Numerous studies confirm that prolonged isolation deprives prisoners of the basic human contact we all need to function, with effects that become noticeable after as little as 10 days of involuntary segregation,” the report states.

Following are some of the report’s key findings regarding the use of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons:

  • Prisoners are not sentenced by a court to solitary confinement; the decision to hold prisoners in such conditions is an administrative one. Prisoners are often placed in solitary without a due process hearing or periodic status hearings as required by the VDOC’s own policy;
  • There is a lack of clarity about the length of time it takes to progress through the Step Down program, a process theoretically  intended to offer inmates a path to a prison’s general population; however, many prisoners remain in solitary for years;
  • Abuse from correctional staff is commonplace, including abusive and racist language used by prison employees, withholding and tampering with food, sexual harassment and assaults, destruction of personal property, withholding of recreation and showers, use of restraints and strip cells for longer durations than permitted by VDOC policy, and pervasive interference with prisoners’ access to the grievance procedure; and
  • Some inmates designated as intensive management appear to be held in permanent isolation, even for years after completing the Step Down program with no disciplinary infractions.

In the report, the ACLU of Virginia calls for a ban on solitary confinement for vulnerable populations, including people with mental illness and disabilities, as well as for juveniles, LGBTQ individuals, those who are pregnant, and people with physical disabilities. Among the report’s other recommendations are that:

  • A multi-disciplinary team should conduct an initial and regular review of each prisoner’s placement in solitary confinement;
  • Every prisoner placed in solitary should be provided written reasons for their initial placement and continued housing there;
  • Use of solitary confinement as punishment should be banned; and
  • Release of inmates from solitary directly to the community should be limited;
  • The VDOC should ensure a full, independent investigation when reports of physical and/or sexual assault are made by prisoners.

The ACLU of Virginia asking anyone who agrees that solitary confinement should be restricted complete an online Action Alert asking Governor Northam to sign an executive order today.