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Virginia House committee advances more changes to solitary confinement

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.

The Virginia legislature made bipartisan changes to the state’s use of solitary confinement last year when the body was politically divided. But now they’re revisiting the issue with Democrats in control of both chambers.

“I feel like it's critical we continue to allow some of those things to play out," Rockingham-area Republican Delegate Tony Wilt Friday morning. "We’re seeing some positive data that it's actually being used less.”

Wilt was pushing back on a bill that would further limit the use of solitary confinement in Virginia correctional facilities. He pointed to a handful of bipartisan changes made last year, which include more daily time out of solitary, as well as weekly mental health evaluations for those placed in cells alone.

Rose Durbin is with the Virginia Department of Corrections. When the bill was first heard in a Senate subcommittee earlier this month, she said the number of inmates in solitary is down from 511 to less than 70. And last year’s changes have yet to bore out, she said.

“We oppose this bill because it limits our ability to support the inmate and develop a safe and responsible transition plan into general population,” Durbin said.

But the bill’s patron, Richmond-area Senator Lamont Bagby, noted the state is currently facing long-running litigation over its use of solitary confinement and whether or not it is constitutional. And while changes made last year may have led to some improvements, he’s still of the mind that the practice is doing more harm than good.

“Is it humane? That’s the reason the bill is before you," Bagby said. "If they’re going to approach everything as ‘We’re going to do whatever as long as it's constitutional;’ we’re in bad shape.”

Bagby’s bill — which would, among other things, require mental health evals every two days — will be considered on the House floor in the coming days.

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

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.