Richmond, VA, June 16, 2022 – On Tuesday, a unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied qualified immunity to Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) officials in a case challenging VADOC’s system of long-term solitary confinement at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge prisons. The court affirmed a lower court ruling that the incarcerated plaintiffs' allegations against VADOC constitute violations of clearly established law under the U.S. Constitution.
The case, Thorpe v. Clarke et al., was filed in May of 2019 in federal court by twelve Plaintiffs at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge prisons. The suit claims VADOC officials violated Plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. This affirmation by the federal court of appeals allows Plaintiffs’ claim for damages to proceed to discovery into the facts and merits of the case. “We are pleased with the Fourth Circuit’s decision affirming the district court and look forward to completing discovery. We believe that discovery will show that VADOC has operated, and continues to operate, its Step-Down program in a manner that violates the constitutional and statutory rights of people incarcerated in long-term segregation in Virginia's supermax facilities,” said Vishal Agraharkar, Senior Staff attorney for the ACLU of Virginia.
The lawsuit describes VADOC’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 the people being held despite being aware of the suffering and harm being inflicted. Solitary confinement, the practice of keeping someone alone in a small space for most of the day with little to no stimulation or human contact, is known to cause mental and physical deterioration in as little as 10 days. At the time of the filing, the lengths of stay in solitary confinement of the named plaintiffs in the case range from three to 24 years. “This ruling recognizes that the incarcerated plaintiffs are alleging violations of clearly established law and clears the way for proof that the Virginia Department of Corrections’ long-term segregation and solitary confinement practices violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. It is a tremendous victory and important step for these plaintiffs. We are very proud to serve as co-counsel to the ACLU of Virginia through our pro bono program and look forward to success in the next phase of this case,” said Michelle Letourneau-Belock of White & Case, LLP.
The ACLU of Virginia, in collaboration with the law firm of White & Case LLP, filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) seeking to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement in two of its most notorious prisons. Maxwell J. Kalmann, an attorney who is now at Meta Platforms, Inc., also partners with the ACLU of Virginia to advocate for the plaintiffs in this suit.
About ACLU of Virginia. The ACLU of Virginia promotes civil liberties and civil rights for everyone in the Commonwealth through public education, litigation, and advocacy with the goal of securing freedom and equality for all. For more information on the ACLU of Virginia go to www.acluva.org
About White & Case LLP. White & Case is a leading global law firm with lawyers in 45 offices across 31 countries.