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May 6, 2019

The ACLU of Virginia, in collaboration with global law firm White & Case LLP, today filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) seeking to end the practice of solitary confinement in two of its most notorious prisons.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on behalf of people who have suffered in torturous conditions, some for decades, at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons. Both facilities are super maximum-security prisons located in the far southwest corner of the state that were designed to hold people in near-constant isolation and deprivation.

Solitary confinement, the practice of keeping someone alone in a small space for 22 hours or more per day with little to no stimulation or human contact, is known to cause mental and physical deterioration in as little as 10 days. The lengths of stay in solitary confinement of the 12 named plaintiffs in the case range from two to 24 years.

The lawsuit describes VDOC’s use of a complex, arbitrary system – known as the Step-Down Program – purportedly intended to help people work their way out of solitary. The lawsuit alleges that in practice, the Step-Down Program has kept hundreds of people in solitary confinement at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge. The lawsuit further alleges that officials administer the program in violation of the constitutional rights of those being held and with indifference to the suffering and harm being inflicted.

“Lack of clarity about length of time it takes to progress out of solitary, and no meaningful ability for many people to get out, amounts to permanent solitary confinement,” said ACLU-VA Senior Staff Attorney Vishal Agraharkar. “VDOC must be held accountable and forced to stop enacting these inhumane practices.”

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that VDOC built Red Onion and Wallens Ridge – and instituted the Step-Down Program – after settling a previous class-action lawsuit about solitary confinement at Mecklenburg Correctional Center, which closed in 2012. In the 1984 settlement agreement, VDOC promised never again to reinstate the type of program or conditions at Mecklenburg; yet it did so and continues to do so at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge in violation of its legal obligations under the settlement agreement. .

The lawsuit alleges the current Step-Down Program is nearly identical to a “Phase Program” used at Mecklenburg, which an independent study commission formed by the state government determined VDOC was using to divert people from other state facilities and inappropriately keep them in solitary at Mecklenburg.

The lawsuit alleges under VDOC’s current Step-Down Program, people who are subjectively classified by correctional officers as being a security risk based on vague criteria and without due process may be placed in solitary confinement. Once there, it is nearly impossible for many to navigate the labyrinth of requirements to be released into general population.

Some are kept in solitary for infractions as minimal as not shaving their beard, using disrespectful language, or refusing to stand for count, while others are placed and kept in solitary because they cannot meet the program’s journaling requirements, according to the lawsuit. Still others are in solitary because of behaviors related to mental illness even though solitary confinement itself exacerbates and even causes mental illness.

The lawsuit seeks to the Step-Down Program, cease the practice of long-term solitary confinement at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, and appoint a special master to bring VDOC’s prisons into compliance. It also seeks to award the plaintiffs compensatory damages for these violations.

The ACLU of Virginia is also suing VDOC on behalf of Nicolas Reyes, a Salvadoran national who has been held in solitary for 13 years atRed Onion because he cannot complete the Step-Down Program. The program's workbooks are available only in English, but Reyes only speaks Spanish and cannot read or write in any language.


  • Brian Cavitt: “I was transferred from Massachusetts and after my transfer here, the assistant warden and the director of housing both told me I would never see general population in Virginia.”
  • Vernon Brooks: “It’s been hard communicating with my family, getting into programs to better my education. And even the privileges we do have get taken with no notice – recreation, showers, anything. They’re not following their own policies. They make decisions and just tell you what happens. They don’t give you any notice or review.”
  • Gary Wall: “I am being put in this program arbitrarily and then am going through it arbitrarily; there’s not a set criteria for me to get out. I feel like I did everything right.  I completed the Step Down program, I got certificates two times, I’ve done everything right, and they still won’t let me out. Every time I get to a certain point, I get a fabricated charge and that is their justification to start the program all over again. I’m deteriorating in here.  My mental health and physical health is deteriorating.”
  • Kevin Snodgrass: “Even though I’m not in solitary confinement any more, I feel like I am. What I went through back there made me how I am today… Even though I know those doors will open at a certain time, I still feel trapped. I still feel the effects.”