Virginia prison officials have tightened their policy on the use of restraints after a civil rights group alleged that at least 20 inmates from the District were shackled to their metal beds for 48 hours or more for minor disciplinary infractions.
Under the new rules, restraints can no longer be used as punishment. They can be used primarily when inmates pose a danger to themselves or others, and then only with stricter supervision and after less extreme measures are tried.
The D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project filed a federal lawsuit last summer alleging that restraints were being used excessively and without justification at the Sussex II facility, a prison in Waverly. The Virginia Department of Corrections houses 1,200 D.C. prisoners there under a contract with the city.
The controversy stemmed from the use of "four-point restraints" -- leather straps that bind inmates to the beds by their wrists and ankles. According to the lawsuit, inmates were stripped to their underwear and strapped to tables for infractions such as banging on cell doors or using abusive language. They allegedly were allowed to get up once every six hours for brief breaks but otherwise remained confined.
Eric R. Lotke, executive director of the prisoners' rights group, said Virginia officials stopped using the restraints after the lawsuit was filed and followed up with a statewide change in policy. As a result, he said, the lawsuit has been dismissed.
"They really shifted into a retreat-and-fix mode instead of a hunker-down-and-fight mode, which was good because what they were doing was insane," Lotke said. "Now we have a policy much more focused on people who are physically dangerous."
The new policy also calls upon prison staff to contact supervisors and mental health professionals when deciding to use the restraints. In addition, the restraints can be used only as long as needed to restore control, and inmates must get regular breaks.
Ronald Angelone, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, confirmed yesterday that officials have put new regulations in place. Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said officials have advised officers at prisons across the state that restraints cannot be used as punishment. "They are to be used to protect inmates, state property and corrections officers," Traylor said.
In court papers, the Virginia attorney general's office attributed the changes to the prisoners' lawsuit. As a result of the new policy, the state's lawyers wrote, "the frequency of use of four-point restraints at Sussex II has been substantially reduced."
Virginia's policy now is similar to regulations followed by the federal Bureau of Prisons, which prohibits the use of four-point restraints as disciplinary tools.
Prisoners' advocates repeatedly have expressed concerns about the treatment of D.C. prisoners in Virginia. The Sussex II prison, which is near the North Carolina border, began accepting D.C. inmates in 1999 as part of the initiative to close the District's Lorton Correctional Complex in southern Fairfax County. The Red Onion state prison in Pound, in southwestern Virginia, houses 175 D.C. prisoners under contract.