TO OUTWARD appearances, Virginia has been a model reformer of its prisons’ use of solitary confinement, a barbaric, dehumanizing punishment that should be reserved for those cases in which isolating a prisoner is the only option. But a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union suggests that the state is still far from meeting that standard.
Conditions in solitary confinement can differ from state to state, but generally prisoners are near-totally isolated, locked in small cells for 22 to 24 hours a day. Recreation and showers are available only under strict circumstances. People who enter solitary confinement healthy are prone to come out disturbed. Those with mental illness are at high risk of getting much worse. When they leave prison, they become everyone’s problem, not just the warden’s. Human beings are social animals. Interaction with other people is not a luxury; it is a mental-health requirement.
Like many other states, Virginia used to warehouse its problem inmates in isolation in facilities such as Red Onion State Prison, a “supermax” penitentiary on the state’s southwestern fringe. In 2011, almost 500 of the nearly 750 inmates there were in isolation, and 5 percent of the state’s total prison population was in solitary. Since then, the state has driven down these numbers, instituting a stepped system in which prisoners can earn their way out of isolation with good behavior and completion of prison programming. Done right, this should relieve unnecessary suffering among inmates, improve prison conditions, enhance safety and save money. The Justice Department cited Virginia’s success in a 2016 report on prison reform.
Yet in 2016, 242 inmates were still in isolation at Red Onion and another facility, Wallens Ridge State Prison. And the ACLU’s research suggests that the spirit of reform has not permeated the state’s Department of Corrections. The advocacy group collected harrowing prisoner accounts of their time in solitary. One “stated that he has not had recreation or a shower in more than a month.” Another “reported that his food tray slot was opened and he was sprayed in his face with a can of mace. After being asked by the correctional employee if he liked it, he was sprayed again. The prisoner was told if he reported the incident they would ‘beat my n----- ass.’ ”
The ACLU found reports of fear that filing complaints would result in punishment. Some inmates claimed they have completed their step-down programs yet have no hope of getting out of solitary anytime soon. Others said they were kept in isolation far longer than they were supposed to be.
“Commenting on how positive behavior is not encouraged, a prisoner reported that correctional guards have repeatedly told prisoners to start fighting because they do not have anything to do and that their dogs are bored and need something to sink their teeth into,” the ACLU found.
One does not have to believe every one of these prisoner accounts to be horrified. Even in Virginia, a state that has made great strides, fewer people should be in solitary, and they should be treated like human beings once they are there.