Red Onion prison in Wise County. Va., is seen from above. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier/AP)

An inmate in a Virginia maximum-security prison says he has been trapped in solitary confinement for a dozen years because he does not speak or read English, an allegation corrections officials called “simply false.”

Attorneys for Nicolas Reyes, a convicted murderer held at Red Onion prison, claim a language barrier has prevented him from participating in a “step down” program designed to allow prisoners to work their way out of solitary confinement. State officials and the Justice Department have touted the therapeutic program, which involves journal writing, as a model for other states.

Reyes, an El Salvador native serving a 47-year prison sentence, cannot fill out the journals the program relies on because he does not understand English or read in any language, his attorneys say in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Alexandria federal court. The suit is filed against the Virginia Department of Corrections and some corrections officials.

Attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union and the MacArthur Justice Center who represent Reyes say his circumstances show that 2011 reforms aimed at limiting the isolation of prisoners have not gone far enough or been subject to enough oversight.

“We believe he thinks he is being taken out for English lessons,” ACLU attorney Vishal Agraharkar said. “A step-down program is not meaningful when there’s no access to it for the prisoners. Certainly in this case, it has kept someone in without any real justification.”

The Department of Corrections in a written statement called many of assertions in the lawsuit “blatant falsehoods.” It said there are accommodations for Spanish-speaking inmates and that Spanish-speaking officers at the prison translate for prisoners.

Before the step-down program, about two-thirds of the inmates at Red Onion in Southwest Virginia, were in solitary confinement, many of them for years. That number has dropped by 81 percent, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, Brian Moran, said in an editorial earlier this year. It’s the only permanent solitary confinement left in the state prisons, Moran said.

Each step in the program is supposed to teach better behavior and deliver rewards — access to commissary food, television and more freedom of movement. But Reyes did not moved forward at all until June of this year; as attorneys began visiting him regularly, he was moved up one level.

Reyes, 47, is not allowed contact or video visits, his attorneys say. He gets at most an hour in a small recreation cage a day and often goes weeks without being let out at all. When he does leave his cell, he must submit to a full cavity search.

Prison guards also do not always take him for regular showers, Reyes’s attorneys allege, instead leaving him until the stench overwhelms them.

“Without adequate oversight and supervision, these kinds of abuses are almost guaranteed to happen,” said Maggie Filler, of the MacArthur Justice Center. “There is a need for more people to be aware of what’s going on behind the walls.”

Reyes killed his pregnant girlfriend in Alexandria in 1991, then fled to Florida, where it took police nine years to find him. He was put in solitary confinement in 2006 for fighting another inmate, in what his lawyers say was self-defense — his only violent altercation in prison. He was moved out of solitary confinement for about four months in 2009, according to the court documents, until he expressed fear of having another cellmate and refused to leave his cell.

His attorneys say officials do not consider Reyes a safety threat and assert he is in solitary only because he has not completed the step-down program.

Corrections officials said Reyes’s own lawsuit says he refused to have a cellmate and refused an offer to be placed in the general population. They say in the statement that the department “looks forward to clarifying and correcting the allegations in the lawsuit.”

Instead of being moved back to solitary in 2009, Reyes’s lawyers say, he should have been moved to a unit designed for prisoners whose isolation has made them paranoid.

According to the complaint, Reyes has for years shown strong evidence of mental deterioration, including “routine, vivid hallucinations, in which he communicates with his dead parents and the former president of El Salvador, Jose Duarte.”

Assessments by prison officials that Reyes suffers from mental illness have been ignored or overturned, lawyers allege in the complaint.

After the ACLU released a report in May criticizing the use of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons, the state Department of Corrections said in a statement that no inmates with serious mental health problems are put in segregated housing for more than 30 days.

Advocates said they learned of Reyes from other inmates concerned about his treatment and his mental problems.

“It’s a particularly egregious case,” Agraharkar said, adding that he hopes the lawsuit will “shed light on the difference between what the DOC is saying and what we’re actually seeing.”