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Bill limiting solitary confinement in Virginia clears first hurdle

Joe Morrissey
Steve Helber/AP
In this Thursday, March 5, 2020 photo, Virginia State Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, speaks during an interview in his office at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Members of the General Assembly are considering a bill that would limit how long Virginia prisons can hold inmates in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is torture. That's the position of advocates who would like to eliminate the practice or at least limit it to 15 days. The Department of Corrections says they have a different name for solitary confinement, and they say they don't do that anymore -- that they changed their policy over the summer and that they no longer engage in what they call restrictive housing.

"That's simply not what we're hearing," says Kim Bobo at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

"We have lots of folks who do prison ministry. They meet with people. They talk with people, family members. And they say it's still happening," Bobo explains.

Last year the Senate passed a bill that would have limited solitary confinement, but then the Department of Corrections slapped a $23 million price tag on it and the bill died in the House. Senator Joe Morrissey is a Democrat from Richmond who is skeptical of the fiscal impact.

"We're ending a program," Morrissey says. "Normally when you end a program, there are savings, not an additional cost to end a program. The savings by ending solitary confinement is in the millions of dollars in other states."

Morrissey's bill limiting solitary confinement has already made it through the first hurdle. But now it's headed over to the Senate Finance Committee, where senators will try to figure out how much this will cost and whether Virginia can afford it.

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.