RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As this year’s General Assembly session comes to a close, both the House and Senate are weighing an important question: should Virginia bring an end to long-term solitary confinement?
At the beginning of this session, urged on by prison reform advocates, both the Republican-controlled House and Democratic Senate put forward largely identical bills that would limit the use of solitary confinement to no more than 15 days in a 60-day period, among other changes.
But by the time the bills came to a full floor vote — and by the time both passed unanimously — there was a severe divide between the two.
Delegate Glenn Davis (R – Virginia Beach), on the floor of the House, put forward amendments that removed the 15-day limit, among other changes, while Senator Joe Morrissey (D – Petersburg) stuck to his guns, keeping his bill as originally introduced.
In committee two weeks before, Delegate Davis told the committee he wanted to remove the 15-day limit at the request of the Virginia Department of Corrections [VADOC].
“We talked about a 15-day maximum in restorative housing, and the Department of Corrections was very open of having that conversation, but the one issue was we couldn’t account for every reason why someone may need to be in restorative housing in excess of 15 days,” he said, citing prisoners who voluntarily stay in solitary for long periods of time.
Under his new proposal, the only major changes to the use of solitary in Virginia would be a requirement to provide a written review of the prisoner’s solitary status each week (reviews can currently be conducted in person, at the prisoner’s cell door, with no hearing or written record) and allows for broad use of solitary to punish any disruption to “orderly operation.”
Natasha White, herself a survivor of solitary confinement and activist for Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR), told 8News that Davis’ version was flatly unacceptable in its current form.
“What it will actually do is allow DOC by law to keep people inside forever,” she said, adding that they had a role in advising Davis early in the drafting process, but were not aware that he planned to make drastic changes.
Davis even shot down a floor amendment that would have made other changes but kept the overall 15-day limit, but shot it down before introducing his own version.
The Department of Corrections put forward the same concerns during a hearing for Morrissey’s bill, but Democrats pushed on without VADOC’s requested amendments.
But concerns over VADOC’s conduct go far beyond the use of solitary confinement. Rev. Dr. David Lindsey told 8News that problems with due process were pervasive.
He pointed out that when prisoners are accused of disruptions or violence that land them in solitary, they aren’t assured of due process and can be blocked from reviewing evidence — like surveillance video — that might exonerate them.
And he said conditions in solitary — which can include practically-indefinite confinement — are tantamount to torture.
“We’ve been involved for about a decade or so receiving letters from the incarcerated documenting conditions in various prisons that really amount to what we would call torture,” he said
Alexandra Bailey, representing the Sentencing Project, which studied prison conditions in Virginia at the commonwealth’s request, leveled even more serious accusations against the department.
“What I can tell you is that not only should you support this bill, but the Virginia Department of Corrections was engaging in practices that were quite frankly dangerous and illegal,” she said. “I have video footage of representatives of [VADOC] saying on camera that they were going to bypass both federal and Virginia law to conduct research on incarcerated persons in your state, which is a federally protected class, without oversight.”
Senator Morrissey, a former defense attorney and long-time criminal justice reformer, closed his own comments by saying that while ending solitary confinement could save the state tens of millions of dollars, the fiscal cost should not be the General Assembly’s primary concern.
“There are fiscal savings, but that should be the last thing that we consider, we should focus on what everyone has spoken about, and that is protecting the civil rights, mental health and dignity of prisoners.”
Now, as part of the crossover process, a select group of delegates and senators will meet to hash out the differences in the bill and move forward a compromise version acceptable to both. If that doesn’t happen, or if the conference version is rejected by one or both houses, the push for solitary reform will effectively be dead for the year.