Columnist

The letters keep coming.

At first, Gay Gardner received a few letters from two inmates at Virginia’s supermax Red Onion prison. Now, dozens of the state’s prisoners write to her, their letters filling a Washington post office box at a pace that makes it hard for her to respond to each. But she tries, asking them questions no one else does and addressing concerns others have dismissed.

In exchange, the inmates have given her this: a rare detailed view of solitary confinement, a place most people will never see beyond television portrayals.

In their letters, the men detail commissary costs, shower allotments and guards’ dispositions. They also collectively describe a system that from the outside appears as if it is helping them return to the general prison population, but in practice has left them running on a wheel that goes nowhere.

“I have been housed here in segregation for over 15 years and I don’t see no relief in sight,” reads one letter from an inmate. “Any and all assistance is welcomed and so very much appreciated.”

A few months later he wrote again to say a prison official came to him with a copy of his last letter and told him that “no one can help you, you are not leaving this segregation unit, you are going to die here!”

Gardner, who is on the board of Interfaith Action for Human Rights, didn’t start out as an advocate for inmates in solitary confinement, and she is, in some ways, an unlikely voice for them. She’s a grandmother who spends many of her days babysitting in Northern Virginia. But she has spent her entire adult life working on human rights issues, and in the letters, she sees too many similar stories and overlapping details to not believe the inmates.

“No one deserves to be discarded by society and abused,” Gardner said. “I really believe we are defined by how we treat people who are deemed by society to be the least worthy.”

Her group is among the organizations that are now trying to bring attention to what they describe as dangerous and inhumane conditions in Virginia’s correctional system, which touts itself as a model for the rest of the country.

At a time when many important issues are yanking at our attention, including immigration, racial tensions and school safety, we could easily ignore this one. But we shouldn’t — if not for benevolent reasons, then for selfish ones.


Red Onion State Prison in Wise County, Va. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier)

While solitary confinement is, of course, necessary in certain circumstances, its misuse can cause mental and physical damage that has been well documented. And here is where our self-interest comes in: Many of these inmates will get released. And when they do, they will share our roads and our parks and our grocery store aisles.

A locked cell will no longer separate their problems from ours.

Consider the effects of spending more than 22 hours each day in a space no bigger than a parking spot, with little human contact or access to natural light, said Bill Farrar, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

“These are the things that make us human,” he said.

Earlier this month, the ACLU released an alarming report that describes hundreds of inmates in Virginia — including people with mental illnesses, juveniles and individuals who identify as LGBT — living in solitary confinement conditions for lengths of time that far exceed international standards.

Under the “Mandela Rules” adopted by the United Nations, no person should spend more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement. The ACLU report says Virginia’s inmates spend an average of 2.7 years there.

The organization sent the report and a letter to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), urging him to issue an executive order limiting who lands in segregated housing and for how long.

“It is not just the ‘worst of the worst’ who are suffering right now in solitary,” the letter reads. “Hundreds of people are deteriorating mentally and physically in those conditions right now who were placed there for minor infractions, behavioral issues, or ‘for their own protection.’ ”

A statement from the governor’s office was included in a news release the Virginia Department of Corrections issued the same day the ACLU’s report was published.

“Under the leadership of Director Harold Clarke, Virginia has become a nationally-recognized leader in reforms that reduce the use of restrictive housing and ensure that inmates are properly prepared to succeed in society when they leave restrictive housing or any corrections environment,” the statement read.

It’s true the department has reduced the number of inmates who are in what it calls “restrictive housing” at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, another supermax prison, and it should be lauded for that. From January 2016 to December 2017, according to data sent to The Washington Post, the system-wide population in restrictive housing was reduced by about 29 percent. Officials accomplished that through a “Step-Down” program, which allows inmates to work their way back into the general prison population and was implemented in 2011. A Washington Post report around that time found that two-thirds of the inmates at Red Onion were housed in segregation, many of them for years.

But to believe the department’s work is now done is shortsighted and potentially harmful to those inside and outside the prison. The ACLU report and the inmates’ letters describe the Step-Down program as a process that helps some and leaves others languishing for years, filling out workbooks that contain questions such as “What is the strongest emotion you have felt in the last week?”

Farrar and other advocates also question the department’s claim in its release that “seriously mentally ill offenders can spend no more than 30 days in restrictive housing.” What about the many, they ask, who haven’t been formally diagnosed or don’t meet the high bar of “seriously”?

Among the letters Gardner has received, one inmate describes spending time in a psychiatric hospital at the age of 8 and then again at 11. He writes that he has gone through the Step-Down program but remains in segregation, a place he first became familiar with at the age of 17.

“It seems to me that it’s all just a big scheme,” he writes. “It makes no sense to believe that an entity whose sole purpose of creation was to assert dominance and control over people . . . would truly reform itself.”

His letters, bound together with a rubber band, are one bundle in a growing stack.

Gardner receives between six and 10 letters each week. She expects that, unless the state improves its practices, they will keep coming.