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One state lawmaker will again try to end solitary confinement in Virginia

Lawmakers are about to consider legislation to cut back on when prisoners can be held in solitary confinement.

When he was an inmate at the Norfolk jail, David Smith was held in solitary confinement for more than 16 months. Now he’s chairman of the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement, and he says keeping inmates isolated for long periods of time is torture.

"Keeping people in isolation by themselves or with another person and only allowing them out for two hours a day causes psychological and physical damage," Smith explains. "Internationally accepted is 15 days is when you really begin to see the detrimental effects of this type of confinement."

Senator Joe Morrissey is a Democrat from Richmond who wants to eliminate solitary confinement in Virginia prisons. Last year, he had a bill that would have eliminated solitary confinement, but the Department of Corrections said the cost of accomplishing that would include new nurses, psychologists, residential specialists, uniforms, supplies and equipment. Morrissey says that's rubbish.

"If you were to say, we're going to start this new program in Virginia DOC and it's called solitary confinement, I might understand a high-dollar ticket to it," he says. "We're not doing that. We are eliminating the program."

The Department of Corrections says it has already eliminated solitary confinement, which it calls restrictive housing. Advocates say the reality on the ground is very different, and Morrissey says he’ll take another stab at the issue next year.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.