Opinions

Why all Virginians should care about the overuse of solitary confinement

This summer, we did something few legislators get the opportunity to do: We toured Virginia’s maximum security prison. This is where Virginia keeps its most dangerous prisoners or, as they are sometimes referred to as, “the worst of the worst.” We would like to take you through our experience and offer recommendations to help reform the state’s prison system.

We selected the Red Onion State Prison in Pound, in the far southwest part of the state. The prison is home to convicted sniper Lee Boyd Malvo and has also been in the news lately for two slayings among prisoners. We started our day by meeting with Red Onion corrections officers, mental health staff and Department of Corrections officials. We asked questions on the treatment of prisoners, how long they were kept in solitary confinement and the level of mental health services provided. We ate the same food served to the prisoners. Then we were escorted inside the prison walls to get an up-close view of prison life. We came away with a new perspective and a deep respect for the work of corrections employees, and we offer the following observations about Virginia’s prison system:

Too many prisoners are in solitary confinement for too long: Virginia’s nearly 1,800 prisoners in isolation are confined in an 80-square-foot cell 23 hours a day, seven days a week. They typically get one hour a day for recreation five days a week, confined to a 96-square-foot, chain-link-fenced area that can be described only as a cage. They eat alone in their cells and, by design, have little, if any, interaction with others.

We witnessed more than 40 prisoners living under these conditions. Many have been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses. While those assigned to segregation units have their cases periodically reviewed, that doesn’t mean prisoners get released into the general population. We spoke to one prisoner who has been in solitary confinement for more than 12 years. We’re aware of many other prisoners in Red Onion’s segregation units who have been there for several years.

Federal courts have ruled that segregating prisoners, especially those with a serious mental illness, for too long is a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners state: “No prisoner diagnosed with serious mental illness should be placed in long-term segregated housing.” Unfortunately, the Virginia Department of Corrections has no limit on how long an individual with a mental illness can be in segregation. While we understand the need to maintain the safety of prisoners and staff, we strongly believe this process needs to be reassessed. Of greatest concern is public safety. Sometimes there is no intermediate step within prison between segregation and release into the community.

Raise the salaries of state correctional-facility personnel to federal levels. It’s important to note that the corrections personnel we met — administration, officers and mental health professionals — work tirelessly and with extremely limited resources to carry out their duties in what can be a tense and difficult environment. Unfortunately, the salaries of personnel are well below the national average. The starting salary for a Department of Corrections officer is around $27,485, compared with approximately $41,000 in the federal prison system. This gap needs to be closed.

In addition, significantly more funding is needed for mental health services. More psychiatrists and psychologists are needed to do a better job assessing and interacting with prisoners, to begin their rehabilitation for successful reentry into the general prison population and, in most cases, into society at large. It’s clearly in society’s best interests to ensure we have adequate mental health treatment in our prison system.

Study the feasibility of limiting segregation. Solitary confinement does not facilitate rehabilitation and can create and exacerbate existing mental illnesses. Normal human contact is essential for ensuring successful community reentry and reducing recidivism. For prisoners with mental illnesses, years of isolation with minimal face-to-face communication ill-equips them for successfully reentering the community. For those without a mental illness, the harm from lengthy segregation can be just as damaging.

In 2006, Mississippi began to reduce its segregation population through an aggressive reassessment of prisoners. Within a year, the number of inmates in segregation dropped by 80 percent. By closing down units and shifting staff, the state saved more than $5 million a year. Maine has also undergone a similar process and reduced its segregated population by 70 percent.

We have introduced legislation to study the feasibility of limiting the widespread use of segregation for long periods of time. Learning from the experience of Mississippi and Maine, we believe Virginia can do this safely with equally positive results.

We realize these recommendations will be criticized, and some might ask why we should even care. But we all should care. Most of the prisoners who are currently in segregation will be in our community one day, so we all have a stake in proven methods of rehabilitation.

Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) is a member of the Virginia Senate. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) and Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) are members of the House of Delegates.

 
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