RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia General Assembly has passed a bill aimed at ending solitary confinement in state prisons, but while the bill would limit the scope of solitary confinement, advocates say it leaves serious gaps that must be addressed.
The bill passed with overwhelming support in the senate and House of Delegates on Saturday, Feb. 25, skating in just before the end of session — but it faced a turbulent road to approval.
The proposal started life as two different bills in the House and Senate, which each passed their own vision for reigning in solitary confinement, rejecting the other chamber’s bill when it came to them. It was only with the last-minute formation of a conference committee that the bill was able to pass at all.
The final version, which will now go to the governor’s desk, formalizes solitary confinement procedures, requiring prison officials to record the reason for using solitary, justify continued confinement in writing every seven days and provide at least four hours of “out of cell” activities each day.
“It helps ensure there’s a procedure in place to get them back in the general population,” said Delegate Glenn Davis (R – Virginia Beach), the bill’s patron, while still ensuring that the prison officials will “be able to set them up on the best path to re-enter society while maintaining safety in the prisons.”
But the compromise version dropped one key aspect of the senate bill: a 15-day limit on solitary confinement.
“Really anything more than 15 consecutive days is considered torture, according to the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights,” said Reverend David Lindsey, director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR). “So, we’re disappointed that that language wasn’t in there.”
Natasha White, a survivor of solitary confinement and activist with IAHR, said some language in the bill effectively codifies unjust practices in the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC).
“You’ve now given the Department of Corrections a go ahead to do what they’ve already been doing,” she said.
One section they both singled out is a provision that allows prison officials to place prisoners in solitary confinement when “such person’s behavior threatens the orderly operation of the facility.“
“Who makes that decision? Does the warden make that determination? Is it a decision a guard makes on the fly?” Lindsey asked.
Still, despite the watered-down provisions of the bill, Senator Joe Morrissey, who spearheaded the senate effort, said the bill was a cause for celebration.
“One of the most important things is that we’ve codified the fact that everyone gets four hours a day outside their cell,” he said.
He added that if he had insisted on the 15-day limit during the conference committee, the bill never would have made it through the Republican-controlled House. As for future efforts, Morrissey said, “I’ll be back for that 15 days next year.”
Reverend Lindsey and White also vowed to continue fighting for prison reform, with Lindsey saying the bill was a promising sign that politicians from both sides of the aisle were paying attention to the issue.
Now, in addition to pushing for the 15-day cap on solitary confinement, IAHR is also advocating for independent oversight of the entire prison system. Lindsey said the remoteness and opacity of Virginia’s prisons makes it easy for them to be “out of sight and out of mind.”
But still, he said, “At the end of the day, how we treat people who are incarcerated in Virginia says a lot more who we are as a commonwealth and who we are as a society than it does about those who are incarcerated.”