The Washington Post

Virginia curbs solitary confinemen­t — but not enough

The commonweal­th gets closer to ending a barbaric practice.


VIRGINIA’S GENERAL ASSEMBLY passed legislatio­n last month aimed at curbing punitive solitary confinemen­t — one of the penal system’s darkest practices — in the commonweal­th’s prisons. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) is now reviewing the measure. Lawmakers watered it down as it made its way through the General Assembly, which is split between Democrats and Republican­s. Yet this is neverthele­ss a moment to celebrate, reflecting increasing­ly widespread recognitio­n that solitary confinemen­t is barbaric. Mr. Youngkin should sign the bill — and Virginia lawmakers should get to work on the next one to further curtail the practice.

The commonweal­th’s criminal code and the Virginia Department of Correction­s refer to solitary confinemen­t as “restorativ­e housing.” That’s an Orwellian euphemism that obscures what it is: isolating human beings in a maximum security setting, often for long periods of time. Inmates call it “the hole” or “the jail within the jail.” We are not alone in considerin­g it cruel and unusual punishment — a sanitized term for torture.

Research shows that prolonged stays in solitary take a severe mental and physical toll on inmates. Solitary shrinks the parts of the brain used for learning and memory while triggering overactivi­ty in the parts of the brain that cause fear and anxiety. Long-term isolation breaks many people. It makes them more antisocial, and therefore more likely to reoffend when they’re back on the streets.

A total of 4,962 inmates exited “Restorativ­e Housing Units” in Virginia at some point during the most recent fiscal year, according to a report issued in October, a tally that’s required to be released annually under a 2019 law. The Virginia Department of Correction­s says that 66 percent of them were Black, that half had a history or showed evidence of mental health impairment, and that their average age was 36. On any given day, there were approximat­ely 354 inmates in such isolation in Virginia — about 1.3 percent of prisoners.

Virginia’s Department of Correction­s says it has tried to reduce the use of solitary since 2011. Since 2020, Virginia prisons say they have been voluntaril­y providing inmates with at least four hours of time outside the cell each day. But activists complain that they hear about many cases in which that doesn’t happen.

So the bill would codify into law a requiremen­t that inmates be allowed to spend at least four hours outside their cell every day and make it harder to indefinite­ly isolate people from the rest of the prison population without justificat­ion. Prisons would need to perform medical and mental health evaluation­s on anyone placed into solitary confinemen­t within a day of their arrival. Each week, the prison would be required to formally review each inmate’s placement in solitary and prepare a written report on why a less restrictiv­e setting could not be utilized. And every facility must prepare a publicly available policy that lays out the processes and procedures for people who are in solitary to transition back into the general prison population.

An unlikely duo of lawmakers made it possible for the Gop-controlled House of Delegates and Democratic­controlled Senate to rally behind the kind of deal that collapsed in the last three legislativ­e sessions. Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (R-virginia Beach) and House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. (D-portsmouth) got it done after visiting a maximum-security facility together in January.

Mr. Scott spent seven years in federal prison on drug-related charges in the 1990s before having his rights restored and becoming an attorney and lawmaker. He says he spent months in solitary confinemen­t, and he was sent there for baseless disciplina­ry reasons. “Basically, to punish me,” he said, recalling how he got no time out of his cell and only one shower each week.

The bill would leave room for improvemen­t. It says that inmates may still be placed into solitary if “there is a need to prevent an imminent threat of physical harm to the incarcerat­ed person or another person” or if “such person’s behavior threatens the orderly operation of the facility.” There are some cases in which separating prisoners from others is the only way to prevent violence. But “orderly operation” is not defined in the bill, and activists worry that this provision is so broad and subjective that prison authoritie­s will use it as a loophole to harshly mistreat prisoners they dislike.

In many cases, there are more humane options than solitary. Colorado, Oregon and Washington state successful­ly implemente­d “cool-down areas” in their prisons, which allow inmates to manage stress with simulated nature therapy. Last year, Virginia began a cool-down room pilot program at five facilities. Preliminar­y data showed that 85 percent of inmates sent to these rooms returned to the general population and did not need to go into solitary confinemen­t. Inmate participan­ts also said that spending time in these rooms helped them gain better control of their emotions. Virginia is now rolling out cool-down rooms across its system. The bill could have done more to limit when solitary can be considered over such alternativ­es.

The bill falls short in a few other areas, too. An earlier version would have required that inmates get seven hours of daily socializat­ion outside of solitary, rather than just four. Meanwhile, the main sticking point in negotiatio­ns was on whether lawmakers should restrict how long someone can be kept in solitary. An earlier version of the bill limited solitary to no more than 15 consecutiv­e days in any 60-day period unless a prison administra­tor determined that the incarcerat­ed person needed to be there to prevent an imminent threat of physical harm to themselves or others. But lawmakers removed the cap after lawyers for the state expressed concerns that it could lead to lawsuits if the exceptions weren’t broad enough.

The U.N. General Assembly adopted the Nelson Mandela Rules in 2015. These are intended to restrict the use of solitary confinemen­t across the world as a measure of last resort that should only be used in exceptiona­l circumstan­ces. Mandela, who spent 27 years locked up as a political prisoner in apartheid South Africa, called solitary confinemen­t “the most forbidding aspect of prison life” because “there was no end and no beginning; there’s only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks.” The U.N. resolution defines solitary confinemen­t lasting longer than 15 days as “prolonged,” and says that indefinite or prolonged detention in solitary should be prohibited.

More than 30 states have enacted laws over the past decade to limit the use of solitary confinemen­t in ways big and small. New York last year limited isolation to no more than 15 consecutiv­e days, with narrow exceptions, and the state now bans “segregated confinemen­t” for people with disabiliti­es, and those younger than 21 or older than 55. This is the right thing to do. We hope Virginia follows soon.

 ?? CHRIS TYREE/VIRGINIAN-PILOT/AP ?? An inmate under solitary confinemen­t at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Va., in 2004.
CHRIS TYREE/VIRGINIAN-PILOT/AP An inmate under solitary confinemen­t at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Va., in 2004.
 ?? KRISTEN ZEIS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. (D-portsmouth), who spent seven years in federal prison, helped push the measure curbing solitary confinemen­t.
KRISTEN ZEIS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. (D-portsmouth), who spent seven years in federal prison, helped push the measure curbing solitary confinemen­t.

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