by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella
Jan. 9th 2012
For anyone who missed it, this front page article in Sunday’s Washington Post gives excellent coverage to the widespread use of solitary confinement in Virginia’s state prisons. It begins with a glance at one of the nation’s most notorious supermax prisons, Red Onion, and then goes on to discuss efforts to limit the use of solitary in Virginia–which include both a lawsuit and a possible legislative initiative.
At Red Onion State Prison, built on a mountaintop in a remote pocket of southwest Virginia, more than two-thirds of the inmates live in solitary confinement.
In a state where about 1 in 20 prisoners are held in solitary, Red Onion, a so-called supermax prison, isolates more inmates than any other facility, keeping more than 500 of its nearly 750 charges alone for 23 hours a day in cells the size of a doctor’s exam room…
As more becomes known about the effects of isolation — on inmate health, public safety and prison budgets — some states have begun to reconsider the practice, among them Texas, which, like Virginia, is known as a law-and-order state…
Now critics have set their sights on Virginia, where lawyers and inmates say some of the state’s 40,000 prisoners, including some with mental-health issues, have been kept in isolation for years, in one case for 14 years…
The Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents 12 inmates in isolation in Virginia, has requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which recently launched a probe into a 1,550-bed Pennsylvania prison where inmates complain of long periods of isolation and a lack of mental-health treatment…
A group of legislators…have been visiting prisons, including Red Onion, to examine how their most violent inmates are treated. Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who is leading the effort, said he will urge the General Assembly to study ways to limit the use of solitary confinement and offer more treatment before inmates are released.
The story does a good job of explaining how solitary confinement became common practice in Virginia–and throughout the United States. Factors include the explosion in sentencing–and with it the boom in prison building–as well as the increasing criminalization of the mentally ill.
Although solitary confinement has long been a tool of prison discipline (and a staple of pop culture depictions of prison life), the use of solitary became increasingly common in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, many legal and medical experts have argued that inmates in isolation for long periods suffer from higher suicide rates, increased depression, decreased brain function and hallucinations…
Virginia opened Red Onion — deep in coal country and about 400 miles from Richmond — a dozen years ago as part of a major prison-building effort after the abolishment of parole and the lengthening of prison sentences. Like many other supermax prisons, Red Onion was designed to confine — but not necessarily rehabilitate — the most-dangerous criminals.
As of October, 505 of 745 inmates at Red Onion were in solitary, according to the state. When legislators toured Red Onion on Sept. 1, prison officials told them that 173 inmates in solitary there were considered mentally ill.
State officials said they do not keep statistics on the length of isolation stays, but they told Hope in a recent memo that Red Onion inmates have been isolated from two weeks to almost seven years, with an average stay of 2.7 years.
Unsurprisingly, Post reporter Anita Kumar encountered resistance and obfuscation when she sought information for the story: “Virginia officials were reluctant to answer questions from The Washington Post about the practice of solitary confinement. In some instances, they provided contradictory information to The Post and legislators; at other times, they declined to talk about the use of solitary confinement.”
Read the full article here.