A new report by the Virginia Department of Corrections says that out of 30,000 prison inmates, just 43 are being held in what it calls long-term restrictive housing and what critics call solitary confinement.
The report, “The Reduction of Restrictive Housing in the Virginia Department of Corrections,” was requested by the General Assembly in the wake of complaints made by a coalition of rights groups, including the ACLU of Virginia, that the department makes far more use of solitary confinement than it admits.
The 151-page report released Friday says that Virginia has greatly reduced restrictive housing, also called segregation, in recent years. The median stay in short-term restrictive housing is now 14 days, with more than one-quarter of the inmates released within five days.
The ACLU did not offer a detailed response to the report Friday. But spokesman Bill Farrar said: “We’re pretty confident there’s a lot more people in solitary confinement than what this report indicates.”
A class-action lawsuit filed by the organization earlier this year is aimed at halting solitary confinement at two of the state’s most secure prisons, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, both located in Wise County. In August a federal judge in Richmond refused to dismiss it and transferred the case to federal court in Abingdon, where a trial is scheduled for October 2020.
The suit alleges that as of September 2018, at least 242 inmates were being held in long-term solitary at those prisons in conditions that cause “severe physical and mental health damage, including weight loss, auditory and visual hallucinations, emotional distress, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe sensory deprivation and suicidal thoughts.”
Asked Friday why the department will not use the term “solitary confinement,” Director Harold Clarke said, “I think some folks who are opposed to any type of restriction are calling it ‘solitary’ for emphasis. I think they just want to bring attention to it.”
In essence, Clarke said, the inmates are not subject to social and sensory deprivation. They are usually held in cells similar to all other cells, he said.
“They still have the same ability to look out windows, to speak to people and so forth,” he said.
“‘Solitary’ gives one the impression that they’re in total isolation, that they don’t see people, that they don’t speak to people — that’s not the case,” Clarke asserted. They can speak to medical and mental health personnel and to counselors. “They can speak to their partners in the cells next door and they do it all the time,” he said.
Clarke added, “We choose to call it segregation or restrictive housing because they are somewhat removed from the general population in terms of not having the ability to move about as freely as others.”
Clarke, who has worked in correctional systems in four states since 1974, said, “It’s been my experience that there are always individuals who act out, who are disruptive of the correctional process to the point if you do not remove them from the population, they are going to pose a threat, a danger.”
The ACLU alleges that many of them have mental health and other issues.
A bill passed by the General Assembly this year requires “the Department of Corrections to report to the General Assembly and the Governor on or before October 1 of each year certain population statistics of persons incarcerated in state correctional institutions, including certain statistics regarding offenders placed in and released from restrictive housing and Shared Allied Management Units.”
The Department of Corrections’ report says that in 2011, it began reforms that included the administrative step-down program through which high-risk inmates could work their way out of long-term restrictive housing into the general prison population.
Inmates are placed in long-term restrictive housing for attempted murder of another inmate or staff member, escape or attempted escape, or a serious assault, said the department.
They are put in short-term restrictive housing for fighting, threatening staff members, being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, possessing contraband and other serious infractions, says the report.
A restrictive housing pilot program in four medium-security prisons begun in April 2016 for those held in short-term segregation was expanded to all male state prisons last year. From January 2016 to this June, the number of inmates in short-term restrictive housing fell 66%, or almost 1,000 inmates.
Farrar, the ACLU spokesman, wrote an op-ed piece that ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in December that began: “Information on the inhumane practice of solitary confinement in state prisons is the Virginia Department of Corrections’ (VDOC) most closely guarded secret, and one that is actually driving people insane.”
“VDOC won’t provide accurate numbers on how many people it is holding in cells the size of a parking space, deprived of normal sensory stimulation and human contact, for 22-24 hours a day. It also won’t provide demographic information on those housed in solitary confinement, such as age, sex, gender identity, race, ethnicity, national origin, or English proficiency level.”
In the report Friday, the department said there were 484 prisoners in short-term restrictive housing as of June 30, roughly 1.6% of the inmate population.
Demographically, 58% of those in short-term segregation were black and 41% were white. Their average age was 35; 51% had no history or current evidence of mental health impairment; 45% had either minimal or mild mental health impairment; and 37% had no medical disabilities.
In the year that ended June 30, more offenders left restrictive housing than entered — 7,331 exits and 7,121 entries. One-hundred sixty-two were released from short-term restrictive housing directly back into the community.
There were 37 inmates in the Red Onion step-down program on June 30, and all of them were black. Their average age was roughly 38; 13 of them had no history or current evidence of mental health impairment, and the rest of them had either minimal or mild mental health impairment. Sixteen of the 37 offender had no medical disabilities.
The report says that the department’s “shared allied management” units are not restrictive housing. As of June 30, there were 602 inmates in SAM units, 58% of them white and 41% black.
The units were created in January 2018 with the intent of promoting safety and stability within prisons while reducing the cycling in and out of restrictive housing by “certain individuals.” SAM units are composed of three groups of prisoners “requiring more intense case management.”
According to the report, the three groups are: mentally ill or seriously mentally ill inmates at a greater risk of cycling in and out of restrictive housing and/or licensed mental health pods for disruptive behavior; inmates requiring intermittent medical attention, but not requiring placement in the infirmary; and vulnerable inmates at greater risk for victimization or being bullied in general population.