A trio of Northern Virginia legislators introduced a bill Wednesday to urge the General Assembly to study ways to limit the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, especially of those who are mentally ill.

Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) and Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington) visited state prisons this fall, including Red Onion in Southwest Virginia, to examine how their most violent inmates are treated.

Red Onion State Prison in Wise County. (DAVID CRIGGER/BRISTOL HERALD COURIER)

“It’s alarming that prisoners can go from several years segregated in a small cell with very little human contact directly into the outside world,’' Hope said.

“Many of these prisoners have a very serious mental illness or become seriously mentally ill primarily to their segregation. With a trend in other states moving away from this kind of confinement, maybe it’s time we took a hard look at what Virginia is doing and see if we can do it better in a safe and more humane way.”

Read more about the issue in our Sunday story.

Virginia, one of 44 states that use solitary confinement, has 1,800 people in isolation, a sizable share of the estimated 25,000 people in solitary in the nation’s state and federal prisons.

As more becomes known about the effects of isolation — on inmate health, public safety and prison budgets — some states have begun to reconsider the practice. Among them is Texas, which, like Virginia, is known as a law-and-order state.

Lawyers and inmates say some of the state’s 40,000 prisoners, including some with mental-health issues, have been kept in isolation for years, in one case for 14 years.

The Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents 12 inmates in isolation in Virginia, has requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which recently launched a probe into a 1,550-bed Pennsylvania prison where inmates complain of long periods of isolation and a lack of mental-health treatment.

A prison agency spokesman said that inmates are given breaks from “segregation” — the term the state uses to refer to solitary confinement — every 30 days or that their cases are reviewed regularly. But inmates and attorneys say prisons sometimes skip the review.