By Tarazha Jenkins
Capital News Service
A bill that seeks to limit the use of isolated—or solitary— confinement in Virginia’s correctional facilities now faces the Republican-controlled House, who voted down a similar measure earlier in the session.
Sen. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond, proposed Senate Bill 108, which passed out of the Senate along partisan lines. Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester, serves as co-patron but abstained from voting on the Senate floor.
“There is unanimous support in the faith community on this issue,” said Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which advocates for racial, economic and social justice issues.
Solitary confinement is defined in Virginia as the isolation of an incarcerated person to a cell for at least 22 hours per day. Holding someone longer than 15 days in solitary confinement is considered torture by the United Nations, which prohibits the practice.
Virginia prisoners can be placed in solitary confinement for a long time, Morrissey said last year.
No inmate could be held in confinement longer than 15 consecutive days during a 60-day period if the bill passes. When an inmate is held for medical circumstances, a medical practitioner must approve the move. Correctional facility administrators must document why the inmate is placed in confinement. They must also file medical and mental health evaluations and set a plan of action for the inmate outside of confinement.
The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy wants to limit what it said is the Virginia Department of Corrections’ excessive use of solitary confinement.
DOC stated in a press release last year that it no longer holds people in solitary confinement, often called restrictive housing, because inmates are let out of the cell for at least four hours a day. DOC now refers to solitary confinement as restorative housing.
DOC reported placing more than 5,000 inmates in restorative housing from mid-2020 to mid-2021. The median length of stay was about 12 days, according to the report.
Natasha White, coordinator for the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement, said the practice is horrible and there is no way of knowing how long someone is in confinement.
White served four consecutive years in solitary confinement at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, she said.
“They claim it was for preventive measures, but four years, that is a very long time – to the point where you don’t know what day it is unless you ask somebody,” White said. “You know what day of the week it is by the days you take a bath.”
Her husband spent 12 years in confinement on gang-related offenses. When he came home, he was “really, really damaged.”
“There are literally people who self-mutilate, men who have chewed their fingertips off just so they can get to a doctor, so you have to take them out of that box,” White said.
White now dedicates her time toward prison reform and ending solitary confinement in Virginia and federal correctional facilities. White advocated for a similar bill in New York that passed in March 2021.
DOC’s adaptation of the restorative housing term doesn’t change the situation, White said.
“It’s verbal gymnastics,” White said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said there is no oversight for the department, and no way to verify if the practice has ended. Numerous people contacted the ACLU of Virginia with complaints of continued use of solitary confinement, the organization reported.
The incarcerated have the opportunity to join the general population on completion of the Step Down program, DOC stated. The program allows inmates at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons to participate in a journaling series and other therapeutic activities and programs.
Not every inmate has the chance to complete the Step Down program, according to a statement from Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria.
Nicholas Reyes, an El Salvador native, was placed in the Step Down program but he could not fill out the required journals because he does not understand English. He was later diagnosed with a serious mental illness after spending 12 years in isolation at Red Onion State Prison. Virginia paid Reyes $115,000 in a 2018 lawsuit settlement, according to the Washington Post.
“If you’re not mentally ill when you enter solitary confinement you certainly could be when you leave,” Ebbin said, just before the Senate voted on the measure.
Bobo spoke with those who were previously held in confinement. She said it can cause or exacerbate mental health issues.
Morrissey proposed a similar bill in the 2021 session. SB 1301 moved through the Senate floor, but failed to pass the House after DOC estimated it would cost $23 million to implement.
Patrons and partners have worked with DOC over the past year to lower the fiscal cost. In the past fiscal year Virginia spent over $26 million in secure confinement expenses.
DOC is estimated to need $4.8 million in general fund support in fiscal year 2024, and “an indeterminate amount of funding for correctional officers and transport buses” to implement the bill, according to the bill’s impact statement. An estimated $3.3 million in general fund support would be needed for the Department of Juvenile Justice in fiscal year 2024.
Bobo says this year the bill’s fiscal note is more “modest.” She believes the bill will pass the Republican-controlled House.
The bill has been referred to the House Public Safety subcommittee.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.