WHEN A comprehensive report on solitary confinement in the United States’ prisons was published two months ago, it wasn’t quite as comprehensive as it seemed. Virginia (among several other states) was absent.
The report, by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School’s Liman Center, collected data from 43 prison systems to assess the extent to which solitary confinement — a practice whose inherent cruelty has prompted a growing reform movement — remains in use. The good news was that many states are moving away from warehousing inmates in what Justice Sonia Sotomayor likened to a “penal tomb” that exacts what then-Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said is a “terrible price” unworthy of civilized nations. The bad news was that progress across the states has not been uniform.
Having implemented reforms in 2011 to downsize what it euphemistically calls its system of “restrictive housing,” Virginia seems to have been part of the national trend to shift many prisoners into more humane conditions of confinement. Officials assert that the number of inmates segregated in small cells for at least 22 hours a day — the standard definition of solitary confinement — has been cut by about 85 percent, to about 70 from more than 500 at the start of the decade, at Red Onion, a maximum-security prison in rural Wise County that was once notorious for warehousing difficult inmates. Statewide, of a prison population of roughly 31,000, officials say just 822 were in solitary confinement at the end of July this year. That would make Virginia’s rate of solitary use more sparing than all but about 10 states that have reported statistics.
However, the state’s apparent progress is marred by a lack of transparency and by troubling signs suggesting the reforms may not be all they are cracked up to be. In September, a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of an inmate at Red Onion said he had been held for more than 12 years in solitary confinement, suffers from severe and deepening mental illness, which has gone untreated, and has been unable to access less restrictive housing owing to his inability to speak English and illiteracy in Spanish, his native language.
State corrections officials have denied some aspects of the lawsuit, insisting that the inmate, Nicolas Reyes, serving 47 years for murder, rejected a move to less restrictive housing. They also say that all prisoners with serious mental illness have been removed from solitary confinement and transferred to specialized facilities. Yet they undercut their case by resisting reasonable measures to promote openness. Last year, for example, they raised questions about legislation in Richmond that would have prohibited solitary confinement for mentally ill and other “vulnerable” inmates, except in well-defined, specific cases — for example, during prison lockdowns, or when an inmate posed a risk to himself or others. That bill died in committee.
A new bill, sponsored by Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Alexandria), is more modest: It would require the state to furnish to the General Assembly detailed annual data on the inmate population kept in restrictive housing. If Virginia has made the progress that corrections officials claim, there should be no problem in supporting that legislation and providing the public with that information.