Religious coalition responds to VA inmate hunger strike

For Immediate Release: May 23, 2012

Contact: Samantha Friedman, office: (202) 265-3000 or cell: (202) 215-9260 or samantha@rabinowitz-dorf.com

Inmate hunger strike in Virginia leads religious coalition to again call for end to prolonged solitary confinement

Washington, D.C. – Dozens of state prison inmates at Virginia’s only super-maximum prison, Red Onion State Prison, have undertaken a hunger strike to bring attention to inhumane confinement conditions. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has been vocal in its opposition to the controversial and frequent use of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons across the United States, including by sending a letter in March to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, urging him to provide for independent experts to assist in the Virginia Department of Corrections’ review into long-term solitary confinement in Virginia prisons.

Rev. Richard Killmer, Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, released the following statement today, calling for renewed attention to the use of prolonged solitary confinement at both the state and federal level:

“The hunger strike to protest conditions at Red Onion State Prison, including prolonged solitary confinement, indicates a need for increased transparency of the Virginia Department of Correction’s recently proposed changes to solitary confinement policies.

Currently, nearly 500 inmates at Red Onion spend 23 hours a day in a cell by themselves, with limited access to a caged pen for solitary exercise. Some Virginia prisoners, including those with mental illnesses, have been kept in isolation for years.

Our faith traditions recognize the inherent dignity of every human being, a quality that should not disappear behind prison gates. Prolonged isolation violates individuals’ God-given dignity by destroying prisoners’ minds and the opportunity for genuine rehabilitation.

Many studies have documented the detrimental psychological effects of long-term segregation, such as hallucinations, illusions, perceptual distortions, and hyperresponsivity to external stimuli.

More often than not, prisoners held in segregation return to society as less functional human beings, and studies indicate that isolation increases prisoners’ risk of recidivism. Housing prisoners in solitary confinement also costs the Commonwealth significantly more than housing prisoners in general prison population.

In light of the high cost of solitary confinement and its diminishing returns, states around the country are reducing their use of segregation and finding that there are safe alternatives. Both Mississippi and Maine have drastically reduced the use of solitary confinement and as a result, have not only saved millions of taxpayer dollars, but actually experienced a decline in violent incidents within their prisons.

NRCAT applauds Virginia’s Department of Corrections for its internal plans to reform the use of isolation at Red Onion, including appointing a team of experts to examine each prisoner and design personalized case plans, and adding additional levels of review before inmates are placed in solitary confinement. However, we remain convinced that independent review using expert data analysis methodology is essential to successfully implement alternatives to solitary confinement. Publicly announcing such an independent review would also demonstrate the Department’s good faith to reform its isolation policies. We urge the Department to provide transparent reporting of its plans and progress.”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) is a growing membership organization committed to ending U.S.-sponsored torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Since its formation in January 2006, 315 religious organizations have joined NRCAT, including representatives from the Catholic, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, Unitarian Universalist, Quaker, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, Buddhist, and Sikh communities. Members include national denominations and faith groups, regional organizations and local congregations.

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