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August 27, 2019

Federal District Court Judge Robert E. Payne today issued a sweeping 67-page opinion rejecting in its entirety an attempt by Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) officials and employees to block judicial review of their use of solitary confinement in state prisons.

The ACLU of Virginia, together with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and pro bono attorneys from Washington, D.C., brought the case on behalf of Nicolas Reyes, a monolingual Spanish speaker who was held in solitary confinement for more than 12 years at Red Onion State Prison. Mr. Reyes’ inability to communicate in English meant that he had no meaningful access to VDOC’s Step-Down Program that VDOC claims gives people a pathway out of solitary confinement. The complaint alleges Mr. Reyes decompensated mentally and physically as a result of his forced isolated confinement. 

“It is our hope that the judge’s complete rejection of the arguments made by the Office of the Attorney General in defending VDOC’s continued use of solitary confinement will result in VDOC, the attorney general and the Governor’s Office taking a hard look at their continued defense of this inhumane practice, and result in a decision to discontinue its use except in the most extreme circumstances and for very limited periods of time,” said ACLU-VA Executive Director, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.

The lawsuit claims that VDOC’s treatment of Mr. Reyes subjected him to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment, deprived him of his constitutional rights to due process and equal protection, and violated his statutory rights to be free from discrimination based on his national origin and disability.

“Experts and human rights advocates have long recognized that solitary confinement is inimical to human dignity and counterproductive to the stated goal of running safe prisons,” said Maggie Filler, attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. “In opinion after opinion, courts around the country are showing that they, too, take seriously the enormous threat that solitary confinement poses for prisoners. It is time to put a stop to this barbaric practice.”

The decision on behalf of Mr. Reyes comes in the wake of a precedent-setting decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, Porter v. Clarke, which held that solitary conditions created an unconstitutional risk that prisoners would suffer severe mental harm. The ACLU-VA filed an amicus in that case in support of Mr. Porter's claims.

“It is well accepted that extended solitary confinement can cause or exacerbate mental illness which is clearly what happened in this case,” said Vishal Agraharkar, senior staff attorney for ACLU-VA. “Mr. Reyes’ complete isolation because of his limited English compounded the harm he faced in a prison that made little to no effort to provide services in his native tongue,” he added. As Judge Payne wrote in his opinion, there is "no doubt that Reyes has alleged serious medical conditions as to which Defendants were fully aware and indifferent.”

The court's refusal to grant the VDOC defendants' motion to dismiss allows this case to move toward to discovery and trial and provides Mr. Reyes the opportunity to prove the truth of his allegations.

For additional background on solitary confinement in our state prisons, review ACLU-VA’s report – Silent Injustice.