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Proposal to end solitary confinement fails

Person speaks into microphone
State Sen. Joe Morrissey. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

A Senate Democrat’s proposal to outlaw solitary confinement in Virginia was shut down on Friday and replaced with a plan directing the Department of Corrections to study the issue.

Sen. Joe Morrissey’s (D-Richmond) bill would ban the department from isolating people in custody for more than 15 days at a time. It defines isolated confinement as being in a cell alone for 20 hours or more per day.

The Virginia Department of Corrections says it doesn’t use solitary confinement, as defined by industry standards. 

The American Correctional Association defines restrictive housing as separating an inmate from the general population for an average of 22 hours per day for 15 or more consecutive days. VADOC says all prisoners in Virginia are given the opportunity to leave their cells for at least 4 hours each day, so it doesn’t have restrictive housing.

“They’re playing gymnastics with words right now. They know very well that they isolate people,” said Kim Bobo with Virginia Interfaith Center. “Whatever they want to call it, it’s still solitary confinement.”

Advocates opposed the committee’s decision to study, rather than act on the issue. Vicki Fishman represents the Jewish Community Relations Council, which supported Morrissey’s original proposal.

“There are devastating mental health effects and they leave prisoners unprepared to reenter society when they are released,” she said.

The general assembly passed a law in 2019 requiring the Department of Corrections issue a report about its use of restrictive housing.  In 2021, it reported placing more than 5,000 people in what they call “restorative housing” from mid-2020 to mid-2021.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.