Advocacy groups joined the ACLU of Virginia on Thursday in urging Gov. Ralph Northam and other state officials to greatly curb the use of solitary confinement.
Rabbi Charles Feinberg, executive director of the Interfaith Action for Human Rights, said, “We believe very strongly that solitary confinement is an act of torture and that it is practiced widely in the state of Virginia in its prison system.”
In a letter Tuesday accompanied by a 67-page report on solitary confinement, the ACLU asked Northam to end its use for vulnerable inmates, such as the mentally ill, and limit it to only rare cases and then for no more than 15 days.
Feinberg said his group, which advocates for people in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland, also wants Northam “to admit, first of all, that there is solitary confinement.”
The Virginia Department of Corrections issued a media release Thursday titled “Virginia Stands Out for Operating a Corrections System Without the Use of Solitary Confinement.”
“The Virginia Department of Corrections serves as a national model for the limited use of restrictive housing. In Virginia, seriously mentally ill offenders can spend no more than 30 days in restrictive housing,” the department said.
On Wednesday, Lisa Kinney, a corrections spokeswoman, said fewer than 100 inmates at Red Onion State Prison are held in what the department calls “long-term restrictive housing.” Those inmates have out-of-cell recreation and classes as well as access to reading material and telephones, she said.
Feinberg said Wednesday that, “No matter what name it is called, whether it’s segregation, restrictive housing, it is still solitary confinement — that is, prolonged isolation.”
Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, vice-chair of Feinberg’s group, is the mother of Kevin D. Snodgrass Jr., an inmate at Red Onion State Prison who she said was released from solitary confinement last September after pressure from his family and through the “step-down” program that she said he worked through three times.
The Administrative Segregation Step Down Program at Red Onion allows inmates to work their way out of restrictive housing. It was begun in 2011 and has cut the number of offenders in long-term restrictive housing from more than 500 to less than 100, the department said. Other facilities have only short-term restrictive housing, which used to be called disciplinary segregation.
Jenkins-Snodgrass’ son is serving a sentence of 49 years and three months for first-degree murder and firearms and drug convictions in Prince William and Stafford counties.
His mother said, “When he was finally released [from solitary] and had his first visit, I remember the shiver in his body and I also noticed that he gave no eye contact ... more than likely he’s suffering mentally from PTSD.”
Also at the ACLU event Thursday was David Smith, a former inmate of the Virginia Department of Corrections who pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in Norfolk in 2013. He was held in solitary confinement in jail while awaiting transfer to a Virginia prison.
“I survived 16½ months of solitary confinement in the Norfolk City Jail,” Smith said. He described his cell: “It’s small. It’s a parking space. It’s a cinder block and concrete box. It’s worse than we would put any zoo animal in in America today. The lights never go out, they just slightly dim.”
“Can you imagine going days without saying a word to another person?” asked Smith. “I was placed in solitary on the day that I was sentenced because I was put under protective custody. I never did anything to provoke any charges against me.”
He said that once he left the jail he had no problems from other inmates in the state prison system. However, he said one inmate he knew there was sent to solitary because he had more stamps than were allowed.
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said Thursday that “there may be solitary conditions of which we are simply unaware.”
“There are no laws governing the way Virginia uses solitary confinement nor any laws that require correctional officials to collect and report data systemically on how it’s used,” she said.
She said she hoped the report, three years in the making, would motivate the Department of Corrections and other state officials, elected leaders and the public to demand and provide better conditions in state prisons and local and regional jails and more transparency.
“Without such requirements, it’s difficult to gather information and accurately assess the status of solitary confinement in Virginia, particularly since those in charge use many terms to describe the same conditions,” she said.