Va. ACLU report calls for reform, limits to solitary confinement in prisons

Capitol Connection

“It’s a place of fear and isolation.” 

That’s how David Smith describes the 16 and a half months he spent in Norfolk City Jail in what he calls solitary confinement. 

“It’s small. It’s a parking space. It’s a cinder block and concrete box. It’s worse than where we would put any zoo animal in America today,” he said.

Smith, who served about two and a half years for possession of child pornography, was one of a handful of people to speak at a news conference Thursday hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia.

The group was releasing its new report, “Silent Injustice: Solitary Confinement in Virginia.” 

It claims the use of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons is “overused, inhumane, ineffective and should be severely restricted.” 

They are calling on Gov. Ralph Northam to sign an Executive Order banning solitary confinement for vulnerable populations and allowing its use for no more than 15 consecutive days in extreme cases. 

It said vulnerable populations include people with mental illness and disabilities, juveniles, LGBTQ individuals, those who are pregnant and people with physical disabilities. 

The report cites the average Virginia prisoner in solitary confinement spends 2.7 years there. 

“There are emotional and physical effects to solitary that we’re not always willing to admit to,” said Smith. “I think the more people understand the truth about what solitary is and what it does to people, the more change will happen.” 

Executive director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said the state uses different terms to describe what the ACLU considers to be solitary confinement.

The ACLU defines the practice as “the isolation of a person in a cell for 22-24 hours a day with little human contact or interaction, and deprivation of reading material, visitation and participation in group activities.” 

“They can’t any longer cover over what’s going on by calling it different names,” said Gastañaga. 

But a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) said no Virginia prisons practice solitary confinement — even under the ACLU’s own definition. 

Lisa Kinney said there are 98 inmates in something called long-term restrictive housing in Virginia.

All are located at Red Onion State Prison, the Commonwealth’s highest security prison. 

“Even those few offenders who are in long-term restrictive housing have out of cell recreation, out of cell classes, in-cell reading materials, access to the phone, visits with counselors and qualified mental health professionals, etc.,” said Kinney.

In a news release Thursday morning, VADOC said Virginia stands out for operating a corrections system without the use of solitary confinement.

It also said Virginia has been recognized by Northam and the U.S. Department of Justice for its success in limiting the use of long-term restrictive housing for offenders. 

The VADOC said seriously mentally ill prisoners can spend no more than 30 days in restrictive housing in Virginia. 

In her letter to Northam, Gastañaga said the use of solitary confinement is “more prevalent and harmful than the Department of Corrections has admitted.”

“Isolating someone not just from their family and community but placing them in a cell the size of a parking space for 22-24 hours a day and depriving them of human contact, natural light, exercise and other out-of-cell time, and other stimuli causes extreme suffering and mental illness. No one, regardless of their crime, should be tortured and dehumanized in this way,” she wrote. 

Click here to read the ACLU’s 67-page report “Silent Injustice: Solitary Confinement in Virginia,” which includes additional recommendations. 

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