The plaintiffs also contend that the solitary programs are nearly identical to one that the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) agreed to stop using as part of a settlement of a previous class-action lawsuit involving the now-shuttered Mecklenburg Correctional Center in the 1980s.
“Solitary confinement should only be used in rare and exceptional cases as a last resort,” said Vishal Agraharkar, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Virginia. “Unfortunately, the way this program is structured it is effectively keeping people in solitary beyond what’s necessary.”
VDOC officials did not respond to a request for comment.
The plaintiffs have been held in solitary about 22 to 24 hours a day for between two and nearly 24 years, according to the lawsuit. The cells are about the size of a parking space, and the lights are constantly on, according to the lawsuit. The inmates have suffered what is described as “severe physical and mental health damage.” The ACLU estimates hundreds have been through the programs since they were created in 2011.
The plaintiffs include Dmitry Khavkin, who spent nearly six years in solitary confinement after being convicted of murder and other charges. Khavkin lost about 30 pounds in isolation, according to the lawsuit, and suffers from depression, PTSD and other conditions. He was transferred out of solitary after agreeing to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Inmates are typically assigned to solitary confinement at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge if they have been disruptive or committed assaults, tried to escape or committed a particularly violent or notorious crime, according to the VDOC.
But the lawsuit claims some are kept in solitary confinement for infractions as small as not shaving a beard, using disrespectful language or for behaviors related to mental illness.
The solitary programs are run under a regime called the Administrative Segregation Step Down Program, which aims to give inmates a way to earn more privileges and eventually reentry to the general population in phases by exhibiting good behavior, according to the VDOC.
The VDOC told the Vera Institute in a 2018 report that the number of prisoners in the most restrictive housing at the two prisons dropped from 511 to 72 between the 2011 and 2018.
However, the lawsuit claims some prisoners are languishing in isolation.
“The current Step-Down Program is a system of vague standards, contradictory goals, and malleable jargon used to conceal what is nothing more than an indefinite or permanent solitary confinement regime,” the lawsuit reads.
In September, the ACLU also sued the VDOC on behalf of an inmate convicted of murder who had been kept in solitary confinement for more than 12 years at Red Onion. That lawsuit claims Nicolas Reyes lost nearly 50 pounds and his mental health has deteriorated greatly.
The lawsuit filed Monday seeks to end the Step Down program, close the solitary units at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, appoint a special master to bring VDOC’s prisons into compliance, and award the plaintiffs compensatory damages.
In a separate case, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit panel last week upheld an injunction barring Virginia from keeping all death row inmates in solitary confinement. While the state made changes to its death row in 2015, giving prisoners more opportunities to see visitors and one another, officials fought a ruling that the previous regime was unconstitutional.
“The challenged conditions of confinement on Virginia’s death row — under which Plaintiffs spent, for years, between 23 and 24 hours a day ‘alone, in a small . . . cell’ with ‘no access to congregate religious, educational, or social programming’ — pose a ‘substantial risk’ of serious psychological and emotional harm,” U.S. Appeals Judge James A. Wynn Jr. wrote.
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.