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

Virginia is reconsidering how it administers solitary confinement at the state’s only super-maximum prison and plans to implement sweeping changes to its often-criticized practices.

Nearly 500 inmates at Red Onion State Prison spend 23 hours a day in a cell, don’t shower daily and have limited recreation. Some prisoners, including those with mental illnesses, have been kept in isolation for years, inmates and lawyers say.

Some state lawmakers and human rights groups have asked the Justice Department to investigate the use of solitary confinement at Red Onion.

In an interview with The Washington Post, state officials said they have been considering the changes since last spring as part of Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s four-year plan to help prisoners re-enter society and that they are not a response to calls for a federal investigation. The timing, they said, is coincidental.

The state will appoint a team of experts to examine each prisoner and design personalized case plans, add more levels of review before inmates are placed in solitary confinement, and transfer some inmates to a nearby prison, the officials said in advance of a formal announcement. The state, they added, wants to try to rehabilitate some of Virginia’s most dangerous criminals and move them into lower security prisons before release.

“The only thing we do know is it’s worth trying,” Secretary of Public Safety Marla Decker said in an interview. “We can make them better people for when they leave — if they are going to be leaving — and we can better prepare them. . . . Everything tells us it makes sense.”

But national prison experts said the changes could help stave off a probe by the Justice Department, which has received several requests to look into a system that had 1,731 of 30,455 inmates in isolation as of January. An agency spokeswoman declined to comment.

The state’s decision to implement new procedures comes months after a group of lawmakers visited the remote Southwest Virginia prison and called on officials to curb the use of solitary confinement, especially for the mentally ill. Legislators and prison watchdogs have long scrutinized the use of solitary confinement in Virginia, as The Washington Post reported in January.

State legislators and activist groups, including the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, welcome the state’s changes but remain disappointed that Virginia continues to refuse an outside review. Independent assessments in other states have led to dramatic reductions in the use of solitary confinement, which Virginia calls “segregation.”

Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who led the effort to visit the prisons, said he is encouraged that Virginia “recognizes the way prisoners are being housed at Red Onion is counterproductive and there is a more effective and humane way to treat prisoners.”

“When you see the tremendous success other states are having . . . it’s hard to imagine most state correctional facilities not at least being interested in making changes,” Hope said.

As the effects of isolation — on inmate health, public safety and prison budgets — become clear, some states have begun to reconsider solitary confinement. New York, Mississippi and even law-and-order Texas are scaling back the practice under pressure. Virginia is one of 44 states that houses inmates in isolation.

Red Onion, built on a mountain deep in coal country about 400 miles from Richmond, isolates more inmates than any other facility in the state — nearly 500. Like other super-maximum prisons, it was designed to confine but not necessarily rehabilitate.

Inmates spend 23 hours a day alone in a cell — at least 80 feet square — with a bed, and have no group activities, prison officials said. They are moved in shackles and handcuffs. 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.

But, prison officials said, the inmates can visit with attorneys, staff and — for four hours a month — friends and family. They are allowed phone calls, visits to the law library and mail.

Inmates are kept in isolation for disciplinary problems, such as assaulting other prisoners or having drugs, or for protection, officials said.

Still, Harold W. Clarke, director of the Department of Corrections, said “segregation” is not “solitary confinement” — a practice that was once associated with inmates being stuck in a dark hole. “There is no such thing as solitary confinement — nowhere in the country,” he said. “That went out the window a long time ago.”

Scott Richeson, the state re-entry and programs director, said Virginia is using data from new national studies to implement policies, procedures and programs to rehabilitate inmates at 12 of the state’s 40 prisons. A group of staffers and a longtime consultant are developing the changes.

“We want them to work their way down so they can practice law-abiding behaviors before they get out,” Richeson said. “We can reward them by moving them slowly . . . through the plan.”

About 175 inmates will be exchanged between Red Onion and nearby Wallens Ridge State Prison, giving Red Onion a general population for the first time and providing an incentive for prisoners to improve behavior in exchange for more freedom. Virginia began training executive staff at both prisons in January, but lower-level staff and inmates had not been notified of upcoming changes.

Under the state’s plan, the warden and a regional director will review cases before an inmate is transferred to or from Red Onion — two additional reviews from the current program. A team of experts, including doctors and mental health counselors, will examine prisoners and design individual case plans that follow them for the duration of their sentence.

Abigail Turner, litigation director at the Legal Aid Justice Center, which has 12 clients in isolation in Virginia prisons, said she is pleased by the changes but hopes the state will increase mental health counseling beyond offering psychotropic drugs.

Turner said eight of the 12 clients have serious mental illnesses for which they receive inadequate treatment and limited reviews. Prison officials disagree, saying none of the inmates in isolation is seriously mentally ill and that those who need treatment are seen every 30 or 90 days through the cell door or in an office.

David C. Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, said the changes are a mixed bag. While he applauds the added reviews and teams, he said reclassifying Wallens Ridge, which will become a super-maximum prison, is a “big step backward.”

“Time will tell if this is substantive or cosmetic,” he said.

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.