RICHMOND — At Red Onion State Prison, built on a mountaintop in a remote pocket of southwest Virginia, more than two-thirds of the inmates live in solitary confinement.
In a state where about 1 in 20 prisoners are held in solitary, Red Onion, a so-called supermax prison, isolates more inmates than any other facility, keeping more than 500 of its nearly 750 charges alone for 23 hours a day in cells the size of a doctor’s exam room.
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 Texas, which, like Virginia, is known as a law-and-order state.
Mississippi, New York and Texas have begun to scale back the use of solitary confinement under pressure from prison watchdogs.
Now critics have set their sights on Virginia, where 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.
Virginia officials were reluctant to answer questions from The Washington Post about the practice of solitary confinement. In some instances, they provided contradictory information to The Post and legislators; at other times, they declined to talk about the use of solitary confinement.
“I’m very concerned about taking away people’s socialization,’’ said Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who will be sworn in as a state senator this week. “If they haven’t interacted with people for long periods of time, it’s not going to make them behave better.”
Ebbin is one in a group of legislators who have been visiting prisons, including Red Onion, to examine how their most violent inmates are treated. Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who is leading the effort, said he will urge the General Assembly to study ways to limit the use of solitary confinement and offer more treatment before inmates are released.
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.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), a former state attorney general who has pumped more money and staff into helping prisoners reenter society, said in a recent interview that he was unaware of the complaints.
“People behind bars have civil rights,’’ McDonnell said. “At the same time, we have a duty to promote public safety. If people show, even in prison, that they can’t get along with other prisoners, then they are treated accordingly.”
Malcolm Springs, 24, who is serving time in Red Onion for rape and abduction, said his mental-health problems have grown worse since he was put in isolation for assaulting an officer five years ago.
He has tried to kill himself multiple times and has been moved back and forth from Marion Correctional Center, a prison psychiatric hospital, where he was housed in segregation, according to prison officials and his attorney.
“In segregation, all I could do is think about my life, what I have been through, how people treat me here,’’ Springs said in a phone interview. “If I was in population, maybe I wouldn’t be as depressed.’’
Abigail Turner, litigation director at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, said eight of the organization’s 12 clients in isolation in Virginia prisons have serious mental illnesses for which they receive inadequate treatment.
Harold W. Clarke, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, declined to comment. Agency spokesman Larry Traylor said inmates are kept in isolation for disciplinary problems — such as assaulting another inmate, starting a riot or having weapons or drugs — or for administrative reasons to protect them.
Traylor acknowledged that an inmate in certain types of solitary could “potentially be assigned there for years according to their risk assessment.’’ But he said Red Onion operates in accordance with national standards and is accredited by the American Correctional Association.
Although solitary confinement has long been a tool of prison discipline (and a staple of pop culture depictions of prison life), the use of solitary became increasingly common in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, many legal and medical experts have argued that inmates in isolation for long periods suffer from higher suicide rates, increased depression, decreased brain function and hallucinations.
“They should be trying to get them back in the general population,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project in Washington. “Sometimes, these are difficult situations, but it only compounds the problem if you never get out of there.”
In Virginia, many of those in isolation are at Red Onion, where two inmates were killed in the past two years by fellow prisoners.
Virginia opened Red Onion — deep in coal country and about 400 miles from Richmond — a dozen years ago as part of a major prison-building effort after the abolishment of parole and the lengthening of prison sentences. Like many other supermax prisons, Red Onion was designed to confine — but not necessarily rehabilitate — the most-dangerous criminals.
As of October, 505 of 745 inmates at Red Onion were in solitary, according to the state. When legislators toured Red Onion on Sept. 1, prison officials told them that 173 inmates in solitary there were considered mentally ill.
State officials said they do not keep statistics on the length of isolation stays, but they told Hope in a recent memo that Red Onion inmates have been isolated from two weeks to almost seven years, with an average stay of 2.7 years.
Inmates in solitary for disciplinary purposes are held for 30 days before receiving a 15-day break if they have additional isolation time to serve, Traylor said. Those isolated for administrative reasons have their cases reviewed every seven days for the first 60 days and every 90 days after that, he said.
Dennis Webb, 47, has been in solitary for more than 14 years. He is serving a 75-year sentence for armed robbery and malicious wounding. After stabbing a warden, he received an additional 30-year sentence.
Webb was found to have mental illnesses as a child, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, although for many years the state listed him as needing no treatment, Turner said.
At Red Onion, he was given written questions to answer as part of a program designed to alter his thinking and behavior. After the paperwork was done, he spoke to a counselor through the door.
Prisoners held in isolation spend 23 hours a day alone in an at-least-80-square-foot cell with a bed, prison officials say.
They eat alone and have no group activities. They are moved in shackles and handcuffs. Their only interactions with other people occur when prison employees slide meal trays through a shutter on the cell door or crouch down to speak through the slot.
Three times a week, they can shower. Five times a week, they are moved for recreation to a 96-square-foot cell with metal wiring.
Prison officials declined to provide The Post access to Red Onion, citing state policy. But Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) said she saw a “sense of loss’’ in inmates’s eyes when she toured the prisons.
“They are turned back into society with no benefit of transition. Are we doing anything to help them transition?’’ she said.
James Reinhard, who was mental-health commissioner under Democratic governors Timothy M. Kaine and Mark R. Warner, said those with significant and chronic illnesses have been put behind bars ever since the nation began moving away from long stays at psychiatric hospitals in the 1960s. “It’s out of sight, out of mind,’’ he said. “I don’t think society has a lot of sympathy for them.’’
Traylor said the state does not know how many inmates are released from isolation into society or the portion of the budget spent on mental health. He told Hope that 30 mental-health counselors lost their jobs in 2002 because of budget cuts but that those positions have since been restored. Six positions were cut in 2008.
The American Bar Association calls for an end to solitary confinement for the mentally ill and one-year maximum stays for other inmates. In October, a U.N. expert on torture urged all countries to limit solitary confinement to rare cases and to ban it for the mentally ill.
Lawsuits have been brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and others in a half-dozen states — including Wisconsin, Connecticut and California — because of worries about isolation’s effect on the mentally ill.
Springs, who has been in and out of prison since he was 13, was initially sentenced for nine felonies, including carjacking, sodomy and abduction of two 19-year-olds in Hampton Roads in 2004. His mental-health problems — including bipolar disorder, depression and borderline personality — are related in part to childhood abuse.
He said he is frustrated that he does not receive the treatment he needs. Usually, a nurse and counselor come to his cell and ask him how he is doing — through the shutter in the door.
“I can’t have treatment because I’m in segregation,’’ he said. “All I can do is sit and think.’’