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Virginia could end solitary confinement thanks to unlikely duo of lawmakers

Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) teamed up with Del. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) on a bill targeting solitary confinement in the state. (Timothy C. Wright for The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — One delegate is a Republican businessman spearheading efforts to pass a conservative public school agenda for Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R).

The other is the outspoken leader of the House Democrats, a barb-tongued defense lawyer who regularly gets under Youngkin’s skin with partisan attacks.

But Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) and House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) have united across the aisle to seek a major policy change: ending the use of solitary confinement in Virginia’s prisons. All because the two took an unlikely field trip together last month to one of the state’s most notorious maximum-security facilities.

On Friday, the House of Delegates passed their bill — HB 2487 — unanimously, 99-0. It’ll next go to the state Senate, where a similar bill sponsored by Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond) advanced out of committee Thursday and is headed to a floor vote next week.

During a year when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election in November, the joint effort of Davis and Scott is a departure from daily grandstanding and partisan showmanship. Not to get too sappy about it, but if those two can find common ground, politics might not be as irretrievably broken as it sometimes seems.

Cooperation “is not as unusual as you might think,” Scott said in an interview Friday, pointing out that most bills in the General Assembly pass with bipartisan approval. Issues like guns and abortion showcase big disagreements, he said, but “there are some issues where [the parties] are more aligned on than not.”

Solitary confinement has been a topic in the legislature for some time, with lawmakers passing a bill last year to study how to end it. The state Department of Corrections announced in 2021 that it was halting the practice, which has drawn increasing criticism around the world for being cruel and inhumane. But there was no law banning solitary confinement.

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A study released last year by Yale Law School found that while the use of solitary confinement has declined in American prisons, as many as 48,000 people were held in isolation in U.S. prison cells as of July 2021. Only three states reported no inmates in such conditions, the study found.

A few weeks ago, Davis — a member of the House Public Safety Committee, as well as chairman of the Education Committee — was thinking about how to address the topic this year and gave Scott a call.

Scott is one of the legislature’s leading crusaders for overhauling the criminal justice system. And the issue is personal: In the 1990s, Scott, now 57, spent seven years in federal prison on drug-related charges. He has since had his rights restored and become a successful lawyer, but his time behind bars — including time spent in solitary confinement — deeply affected his outlook.

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“They called it ‘the hole,’” Scott said. “And I’d been there for disciplinary reasons for nothing. I mean, basically to punish me. And I was in there for a couple of months.” He got no time out of the cell, he said, and one shower per week. “That’s inhumane,” he said.

When Davis called, Scott suggested they travel to a prison together to see conditions firsthand. He quickly arranged a visit to Sussex 1, a facility near the town of Waverly that housed death row until Virginia eliminated capital punishment in 2021.

The two lawmakers met at the prison. They spent an hour talking with corrections officials, then toured the facility and met with inmates to talk about conditions. While the Corrections Department has banned solitary confinement, it still uses what’s now called “restorative” confinement in cases when inmates need to be kept apart from the general population.

“Their input was invaluable,” Davis, 49, said Friday in an interview, referring to the inmates and prison officials. “I would never have been able to help draft this legislation or speak to it if I hadn’t seen, if I hadn’t had a chance to visit the jail with Delegate Scott.”

The stakeholders were crucial, Scott said. “We got a full viewpoint. And so from that came, how do we codify this? Nobody should be in a cell without coming out every day for some time. And that’s what we did.”

The bill requires that every inmate be offered at least four hours a day outside the cell; makes provisions for some inmates to be held apart from the rest of the population if they request it — some do so because they feel unsafe — or if they pose a threat to themselves or others; and sets out requirements for checking on the health of such inmates and transferring them back to a regular cell.

The idea is to end “solitary confinement the way it has been understood by the public, the practice where people would be in a cell for 24 hours straight every day for an extended period of time,” Scott said.

As Davis put it, “Let Virginia lead the way when it comes to prison reform.”

Morrissey’s version of the bill is likely to win approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate next week. Ultimately the two bills will probably be reconciled in a conference committee, then would have to go to Youngkin’s desk.

“Let’s get it together in conference and finally put to rest solitary confinement in Virginia,” Morrissey said. “We’re a far more advanced commonwealth than we were 200 years ago when we instituted solitary confinement.”

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As a byproduct of the legislation, Davis and Scott have formed an unlikely friendship — the Democrat who wears fancy cowboy boots and drives an electric Porsche Taycan; the Republican who shuffles around with stacks of binders and once lived out of an RV when he ran for lieutenant governor. This year they happen to be staying at the same hotel in Richmond during the legislative session and will grab coffee together in the morning or, sometimes, a “beverage” in the evening, as Davis put it.

“We may disagree on a lot, but we also agree on a lot. And the great thing is we’re also kind of, you know, detail nerds. So we know that this is the art of the possible,” Davis said.

“We definitely have a much stronger and more direct relationship where we can have tough conversations,” Scott said.

One thing they did agree on: Davis did all the talking when the bill was presented to the Republican majority in the House.

“I know if I go and speak,” Scott said, “some [Republicans] will vote against it.”

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.