By Kathleen Shaw
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Lawmakers and prison reform advocates are pushing three bills through the General Assembly that would force the Virginia Department of Corrections to track and share records of inmates in solitary confinement.
Virginia is one of seven states that do not require record keeping for segregated prisoners. Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, has introduced a bill that would require DOC to annually submit data reports to the General Assembly and governor regarding the length of confinement, inmate demographics and disability treatment. Hope said the bill would increase transparency and improve inmate mental health care.
“We need to make sure as policymakers we have all the information we can possibly have in order to deal with solitary confinement and make sure those in there are not suffering needlessly,” Hope said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia published a report in 2018 revealing that more than 800 Virginian inmates live in restrictive housing, for an average of 2.7 years, where they are isolated in their cells for 22-24 hours each day. After a Washington Post articlepublished last month highlighted Virginia’s lack of prisoner data filings, human rights advocates are demanding justice.
Rhonda Thissen, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness of Virginia, said prolonged segregation of prisoners can cause deterioration of mental health. Without facilities tracking the data on segregated prisoners, Thissen said, there is minimal chance of healthy recovery and release.
“The reality is, for people with existing mental illness, it exacerbates their mental illness, and people who have no pre-existing mental illness develop symptoms of mental illness,” Thissen said. “We would like to know the status of these individuals so we know their needs are being appropriately addressed.”
The DOC has stated that solitary confinement is not widely used in Virginia prisons. However, ACLU-VA and NAMI Virginia advocates said at a press conference Thursday that prisoners can be detained in solitary confinement for years. Moreover, they said the Administrative Segregation Step Down Program that inmates go through after being in restricted housing is biased against inmates.
At the news conference, David Smith said he served 16½ months in solitary confinement in the Norfolk city jail for child pornography. Smith recalled meeting an inmate who had been placed in solitary confinement for having too many stamps, which were considered contraband. Another inmate went into restrictive housing for defending himself from sexual assault, Smith said. Without records of these inmates, Smith said, their truths are buried.
“These are just anecdotes. Without the numbers, how do we know the truth? That’s the point of this legislation, just so we can get that understanding of what’s happening in our prisons and what we can do better,” Smith said.
State Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, visited Red Onion State Prison in Wise County in 2011 to evaluate the correctional facility and said the conditions for solitary confinement were miserable.
Ebbin and Hope said passing legislation to reduce segregating inmates has been difficult because of the constantly changing language: It can be called segregation, solitary confinement or restrictive housing.
Ebbin said choosing one term and sticking to it is important in crafting legislation, helping current inmates and improving the prison system.
“We want to know how we’re doing in Virginia with an eye toward moving into punishment that is not overly punitive and not one that leads to mental illness even more for those who are incarcerated,” Ebbin said.