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Prisoners protest continued use of solitary confinement in Virginia

The Department of Corrections claims prisoners are given at least four hours a day outside their cells, but inmates say that doesn't always happen.
Associated Press
The Department of Corrections claims prisoners are given at least four hours a day outside their cells, but inmates say that doesn't always happen.

When he was 18, Joshua Phelps was sent to prison for breaking into a garage, stealing tools and violating the terms of probation.

“My lawyer told me to plead guilty to the charges, and you won’t get no more than five years," he recalls. "I didn’t know any better, and I didn’t get it in writing or anything, so I pled guilty to the charges and ended up getting 17.5 years.”

During those years behind bars he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression and attempted suicide several times. He claimed white supremacist gangs were out to get him and requested some kind of protection – so the state transferred him to a maximum security prison and placed him in what called restorative housing.

“I asked to get out, but they sent me here. They were like, ‘This is the only place we can send you right now. So what’s the worst thing about it would you say? Being locked in the cell 20 hours a day."

Phelps got three showers a week and could make two phone calls each month. The rest of the time he would read the Bible, pace in his cell or exercise in a cage outside.

"I would never put a dog in a cage again. It’s inhumane," he concludes.

For years, Phelps had been using drugs. They were easy to get in prison, but before he came to Red Onion he had kicked the habit.

"I was clean when I was at the Green Rock Correctional Center. I was working in the kitchen. I was doing good. I came here, and being locked in that cell all day long with nothing, it drives you to where, mentally, you want to do something to take your mind out of there."

Deandre Gordon is in long-term segregation at Wallens Ridge – another maximum-security prisons in the mountains of western Virginia. He claims recreational time is not always offered.

"Sometimes they say they don’t have the staff to do it," he explains. "Also, you have to be up at 5:30 – standing at the door – to let them know you want a shower or rec, but if you’re not standing at the door, they won’t put you on the list."

And – frankly -- there are days when he feels it’s not worth the effort.

"They bring you down to a table and chain us to the table, and you’re just sitting at the table doing nothing. If you go outside they put you in a cage – like an animal at the zoo."

He and inmate Gary Wall say they’re sometimes deprived of food – with officers delivering what are known as ghost trays.

"When they take the lid off, there’s no food. They’ve taken the food off the tray," Gordon says. "To the camera it looks like they are feeding me, but they’re not."

"You get a tray, and there’s nothing on it, and they might go several meals at a time to keep you underweight – miserable, and if you act up, they’re going to take your commissary privileges," Wall adds.

Askari Lumumba has spent many months in solitary confinement. He uses the time to study and write, but he can see that other men find it hard.

"You’re in the cell alone. You have limited outside recreation, limited access to other people. You eat alone. You don’t have access to programs that folks in the general population have – specifically access to certain treatment programs, access to certain religious programs, access to work programs."

Studies have shown that prolonged isolation can cause parts of the bring used for learning and memory to shrink, while causing over-activity in areas tied to fear and anxiety. And from the get go, Lumumba says, some prisoners struggle.

"I’ve seen guys have breakdowns almost immediately – very sociable people who go back there and can’t take it. They’re kicking the door. They’re pacing the floor. They’re dealing with anxiety. They’re cussing out staff. They’re suffering delirium."

That’s why the United Nations branded solitary as a form of torture and – in 2015 – urged all countries to ban its use for more than 15 days.

The latest report from the Virginia Department of Corrections shows 55 percent of inmates in solitary spent more than 15 days separated from others, and 29 percent were in for more than 30 days.

When the General Assembly meets next month, Delegate Joshua Cole will offer a bill to further restrict the use of solitary confinement, and in March a federal district court in Abingdon will hear arguments in a class-action suit filed by the ACLU on behalf of hundreds of prisoners who, since 2012, have been held in isolation for more than 15 days.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief