Some state lawmakers and human rights groups have asked the Justice Department to investigate the use of solitary confinement at Red Onion.
In an interview with The Washington Post, state officials said they have been considering the changes since last spring as part of Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s four-year plan to help prisoners re-enter society and that they are not a response to calls for a federal investigation. The timing, they said, is coincidental.
The state will appoint a team of experts to examine each prisoner and design personalized case plans, add more levels of review before inmates are placed in solitary confinement, and transfer some inmates to a nearby prison, the officials said in advance of a formal announcement. The state, they added, wants to try to rehabilitate some of Virginia’s most dangerous criminals and move them into lower security prisons before release.
“The only thing we do know is it’s worth trying,” Secretary of Public Safety Marla Decker said in an interview. “We can make them better people for when they leave — if they are going to be leaving — and we can better prepare them. . . . Everything tells us it makes sense.”
But national prison experts said the changes could help stave off a probe by the Justice Department, which has received several requests to look into a system that had 1,731 of 30,455 inmates in isolation as of January. An agency spokeswoman declined to comment.
The state’s decision to implement new procedures comes months after a group of lawmakers visited the remote Southwest Virginia prison and called on officials to curb the use of solitary confinement, especially for the mentally ill. Legislators and prison watchdogs have long scrutinized the use of solitary confinement in Virginia, as The Washington Post reported in January.
State legislators and activist groups, including the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, welcome the state’s changes but remain disappointed that Virginia continues to refuse an outside review. Independent assessments in other states have led to dramatic reductions in the use of solitary confinement, which Virginia calls “segregation.”
Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who led the effort to visit the prisons, said he is encouraged that Virginia “recognizes the way prisoners are being housed at Red Onion is counterproductive and there is a more effective and humane way to treat prisoners.”
“When you see the tremendous success other states are having . . . it’s hard to imagine most state correctional facilities not at least being interested in making changes,” Hope said.