The American Civil Libties Union of Virginia has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections over solitary confinement at maximum security prisons.
The group says isolation lasting weeks, months or years can trigger mental illness or make symptoms worse.
Solitary confinement at Red Onion Prison in southwest Virginia involves something called Step Down – a behavioral modification program for people the Department of Corrections sees as disruptive and dangerous.
ACLU Attorney Vishal Agraharkar says it’s similar to another approach tried at the now shuttered Mecklenberg Correctional Center. “After another class action lawsuit, the state actually agreed to end it and never start anything like it again,” Agraharkar contends.
Agraharkar says the program relies on arbitrary standards in assigning prisoners to solitary confinement and letting them out. “There are vague behavioral goals that people must meet – things like keeping their cell clean. Having good interpersonal relations or showing respect to staff and completing some journals. It doesn’t really look at someone’s actual risk to other prisoners and to staff, and leads to people being in solitary for far too long.”
The Department of Corrections says it has 45 prisoners in long-term segregation at Red Onion but none at Wallen’s Ridge, another prison targeted in the suit. The Vera Insitute, a non-profit that advocates prison reform, recently indicated Virginia was holding 870 people in some form of restrictive housing.
The news of a suit over solitary confinement won praise from Gay Gardner, who speaks for a group called Interfaith Action for Human Rights.
She claims some of those in solitary are there for the wrong reasons. “We’ve learned about men who have ended up spending years and years in solitary confinement based on their original crime,” Gardner says.
Others, she says, are there because the Department of Corrections says they’re in danger inside a prison. “There are people who need protection, but there should be ways to provide that without confining them to a closet-sized cell for 23 hours a day.”
The United Nations, she says, calls on countries not to isolate people for more than two weeks. “There have been studies that show permanent changes in brain chemistry after as little as 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement.”
Virginia’s only limit involves people with serious mental illness. They can’t be kept in solitary for more than 28 days, and because of their disability, Gardner says those prisoners may not be able to do what the prison demands to stay out of restrictive housing.
In a related story, a federal appeals court has ruled that Virginia cannot go back to isolating death row inmates and denying them access to recreational facilities.
On Friday, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling prohibiting the state from reverting to old conditions that were found to be unconstitutional. Those conditions included holding inmates in 71-square-foot cells for 23 hours a day.