The Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and a handful of Democratic legislators are urging the General Assembly to take steps towards limiting solitary confinement in the state’s prisons.
They say that the practice is unregulated and inhumane and that prisoners may be spending unnecessarily long amounts of time isolated from human contact.
“It’s an extremely severe practice that is irrevocably harming an unknown number of people,” said Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications for the ACLU.
The ACLU called on Gov. Ralph Northam to ban solitary confinement entirely — something no legislator has yet proposed. But during its 2019 session, the General Assembly will consider three bills that would require the Virginia Department of Corrections to collect and report statistics on its use of solitary confinement:
Democratic Dels. Patrick Hope of Arlington and Kaye Kory of Falls Church are sponsoring House Bill 1642. It would require the Department of Corrections to track how many inmates are placed in solitary confinement, including their age, sex, mental health status and other characteristics. The department would have to report the information to the governor and General Assembly each year and post it online.
Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, has submitted two proposals with a similar intent — Senate Joint Resolution 65 (carried over from the 2018 legislative session) and Senate Bill 1085 (filed last month). Marsden’s bill, which has been referred to the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee, would require the prison system to report on its use of any “restrictive housing,” which includes not only solitary confinement but also administrative and disciplinary segregation and protective custody.
The legislative sponsors say that solitary confinement is a mental health issue and that more transparency is a crucial first step in monitoring the well-being of prisoners in solitary confinement.
“There have been very clear studies that show the correlation between the time spent in solitary confinement and deteriorating mental health,” Hope said. “Mental health care treatment is not an optional treatment. It’s mandatory just like cancer or a heart attack or anything like that. It’s just as important.”
The upcoming legislation comes on the heels of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into conditions at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Va.
The department’s report, issued in December, concluded that the jail failed to provide constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners and placed “prisoners with serious mental illness in restrictive housing for prolonged periods of time under conditions that violate the constitution.”
Investigators wrote that the jail’s restrictive housing practices discriminated against prisoners with mental health disabilities.
“I think this is a wake-up call for the entire state,” Hope said.
Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, vice chairperson of Interfaith Action for Human Rights, a prison reform group, said the Virginia Department of Correction should provide more information about how it uses solitary confinement.
Jenkins-Snodgrass said her son, Kevin Snodgrass, spent four consecutive years — from 2013 to 2017 — in solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison in far southwest Virginia.
“As a mother who has a son who is serving time, who has served time in solitary confinement, I will say that HB 1642 is a first step in having transparency from the Department of Corrections, and transparency will give those behind the walls a voice,” Jenkins-Snodgrass said.
Jenkins-Snodgrass will speak at the second annual Virginia Prison Reform Rally on Jan. 12 at Capitol Square in Richmond. The rally is organized by Virginia Prison Justice Reform Network, a volunteer-based coalition of prison reform advocacy groups.
Del. Lamont Bagby, leader of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, has also come out in support of HB 1642. Bagby said the bill has the potential to reduce the number of prisoners spending time in solitary confinement.
“We have to start somewhere,” Bagby said. “We’ll at least know what we don’t know, and that is information related to race, and information related to why individuals are placed in solitary confinement.”
Lisa Kinney, a spokesperson for Virginia Department of Corrections, downplayed the need for changes to the DOC’s use of restrictive housing. She accused the bills’ supporters of being politically motivated.
“Virginia is a national leader in limiting the use of restrictive housing,” Kinney said. “It’s disappointing but not surprising to see others trying to score easy political points and advocacy groups trying to fundraise off this issue.”
Currently, 62 prisoners are being held in long-term restrictive housing, Kinney said. In 2010, that number was 511.
Starting in 2018, the department’s quarterly report to the governor and General Assembly included the numbers of offenders in both long-term and short-term restrictive housing, but it did not contain demographic data or information about prisoners’ mental health status.
Marsden agreed that the department has made strides to reduce the number of prisoners in “restrictive housing,” but he said state officials should not “accept improvement as success.”
Jessica Fraraccio, a former prisoner at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, spent five weeks in solitary confinement in 2013. Fraraccio, 22 at the time, described her experience in solitary confinement as “deprivation” torture.
“You just kind of lose track of time and concept of communication,” Fraraccio said. “It starts to all drift away and you just feel isolated, like you can’t connect with any realistic concepts of the everyday.”
Fraraccio was released from prison in August 2018, after serving a five-year sentence for murder. She said that she hopes the proposed solitary confinement legislation will lead to better monitoring of the practice.
“Hopefully that’ll do something to help humanize these people a little more,” Fraraccio said, “and actually get the people who are working there to pay more attention to the people that live there.”