Today, the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) announced the elimination of “restrictive housing,” one of the Department’s euphemisms for solitary confinement. “Restrictive housing” is defined by the American Correctional Association as the confinement of a person to a cell for 20 or more hours per day. VDOC claims that for the last 18 months, everyone in “restrictive housing” has received more than four hours a day out of their cell, and that the Department “no longer operates anything that meets the American Correctional Association definition of restrictive housing.”
That is not true.
Throughout this 18-month period, numerous people have contacted the ACLU of Virginia with complaints of VDOC’s continued use of solitary confinement. A report filed earlier this year by an independent, court-appointed monitor concluded that Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women routinely isolates people with mental illnesses for 23 hours or more a day.
When lawmakers introduced a bill earlier this year to end solitary confinement and require that every incarcerated person be given four hours out-of-cell per day with few exceptions, VDOC claimed it would cost $23 million a year to implement, effectively killing the bill’s chances of passage.
Last month, a federal court allowed the ACLU of Virginia to continue our class action lawsuit against VDOC regarding its use of long-term solitary confinement in Virginia’s two supermax prisons, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge. The lengths of stay in solitary confinement of the 12 named plaintiffs in the case range from two to 24 years. VDOC continues to spend millions of dollars on outside attorneys to defend its use of solitary confinement.
VDOC admitted in February that its policies allow people in “restrictive housing” to be held in isolation for 22 hours a day, and although a VDOC spokesperson claimed it would be updated soon, a recent check of the official policy remained the same as of the time of its announcement.
For years, VDOC has routinely denied that it uses solitary confinement. Instead, it has kept people isolated for upwards of 22-24 hours per day in units with a variety of names: restrictive housing, administrative segregation, mental health units, and more. By any name, solitary confinement is torture. Being isolated in a cell the size of a parking space for the vast majority of the day causes physical and mental illnesses. People in solitary confinement are often deprived of showers, daylight, social interaction and other basic human needs. The end of “restrictive housing” does not mean an end to the practice of solitary confinement.
VDOC is able to make these unsubstantiated claims because there is no system of independent oversight over Virginia prisons, and therefore the public has no way to verify its alleged reforms, including whether the new so-called Restorative Housing unit will operate as another version of solitary confinement. While the Department may occasionally pay lip service to the people who are incarcerated, their loved ones, and advocates, it is allowed to say one thing and do another by our governor and legislators, who refuse to make meaningful changes. The state legislature has killed bills aimed at improving prison conditions and ending solitary confinement. Governor Ralph Northam could end the barbaric practice with the stroke of his pen.
The ACLU of Virginia and its partners in the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement will continue to call out VDOC’s lies, as well as its human rights abuses, and anyone who helps maintain the status quo. We ask lawmakers to end the practice of solitary confinement and implement meaningful independent oversight to monitor all of VDOC’s practices.