- Associated Press - Thursday, May 10, 2018

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on Thursday called on Gov. Ralph Northam to sharply limit the use of solitary confinement in state prisons.

A newly released ACLU report says the practice remains overused in Virginia. The ACLU said reforms put in place by the state since 2011 are a “step forward” in reducing its use but don’t go far enough.

Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, the ACLU’s executive director, called solitary confinement “inhumane” and called on Northam to issue an executive order to ban its use for vulnerable populations in prisons - including mentally ill inmates - and to limit its use to “rare and exceptional cases” for a maximum of 15 days.

Gastanaga said state corrections officials use various terms to describe what the ACLU considers to be solitary confinement, including “disciplinary segregation,” ”special housing,” and “administrative segregation.” The ACLU defines solitary confinement as any practice that isolates inmates in a small cell for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact, reduced or no natural light, constraints on visits, and restrictions on reading material, TV and radios.

“It simply doesn’t matter what you call it. The impact of the practice on people is exactly the same,” Gastanaga said at a news conference.

Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, disputed the report’s findings and said Virginia “stands out for operating a corrections system without the use of solitary confinement.” She said the state has what she called “long-term restrictive housing” at Red Onion State Prison, but said inmates in that housing have reading materials, out-of-cell recreation and classes.

“The Virginia Department of Corrections serves as a national model for the limited use of restrictive housing,” Kinney said in a statement.

“In Virginia, seriously mentally ill offenders can spend no more than 30 days in restrictive housing, and it is exceedingly rare for offenders to be released to the community from long-term restrictive housing. “ 

Northam’s spokesman, Brian Coy, said the governor’s office is reviewing the ACLU report. In a statement, the governor’s office said Virginia has become “a nationally-recognized leader in reforms that reduce the use of restrictive housing and ensure that inmates are properly prepared to succeed in society when they leave restrictive housing or any corrections environment.”

David Smith, a former inmate who said he was placed in solitary confinement for more than 16 months in the Norfolk City Jail, said he was confined to a 12-foot-by-6-foot cell with no window and was allowed just one hour of exercise in the indoor gym every two weeks. Smith, who served about 2½ years for possession of child pornography, said putting inmates in solitary confinement is “allowing people to be treated worse than zoo animals.”

“It’s a place of fear and isolation,” he said.

Some states have limited or moved away from the use of solitary confinement in recent years after studies have shown that isolation can have damaging psychological effects.

In 2011, the Virginia Department of Corrections put reforms in place to reduce the number of inmates held in “administrative segregation” at Red Onion State Prison and Wallens Ridge State Prison. The department began using a “step down” program that gives inmates a chance to get out of solitary confinement based on good behavior.

In a 2016 report, the U.S. Department of Justice cited Virginia’s success in limiting the use of restrictive housing. Kinney said the Department of Corrections has implemented a DOJ recommendation for a program to divert offenders with serious mental illness from restrictive housing.

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