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Activists campaign to end solitary confinement in Virginia

Human rights activists are actively campaigning in Virginia to outlaw the practice of solitary confinement in the state. But Virginia’s Department of Corrections flatly denies the use of solitary confinement in its prisons. 

In 2011, the United Nations declared solitary confinement, defined as restricting an individual to a small space for most or all of a day without meaningful human interaction, as a form of torture.  The U.N. and other health and rights organizations say that because of possible dire and potential mental and physical harm, the practice should never be used for juveniles or for people with mental health issues.  The Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement includes lawyers, civil rights advocates, faith leaders, and formerly incarcerated individuals.  They are working to protect prisoners rights so   that no inmate is kept in isolated, segregated housing for more than 20 hours per day and that for at least 4 hours per day, inmates have access to meaningful interaction with others. Those lobbying for the bill allow for the use of emergency solitary confinement but say it should last no more than 15 days at a time, and they want outside oversight of Virginia’s Department of Corrections (VDOC) segregated housing practices.  VDOC says it does not use solitary confinement but instead has a “restorative housing program,” which gives prisoners at least 4 hours out of cell each day, along with activities and counseling to help them step down from segregated housing and rejoin the general prison population.  In this year’s General Assembly, lawmakers voted against a bill to outlaw solitary confinement and instead referred the question for study to the Department of Corrections. 


Angie Miles: In the scenic rolling hills of Virginia are two of the most notorious prisons in the country. Wallens Ridge and nearby Red Onion are "supermax" facilities operated by the Virginia Department of Corrections. Intended for the worst, most dangerous offenders. Demario Tyler served three years. The last of it at Wallens Ridge. Demario Tyler has never met Natasha White, but she is one of his defenders. 

White spent time in prison outside of Virginia and she is the coordinator of a statewide coalition of lawyers, faith leaders, and civil rights advocates working for laws against long term solitary confinement. 

Natasha White: Good morning. We're trying to pass a bill in Virginia To end long term confinement in... 

Miles: Solitary confinement is keeping a person isolated in a cell that can be as small as a parking space most or all of each day deprived of meaningful interaction with others. 

White is part of a growing movement to limit or eliminate solitary confinement. 

White: Thank you. You have a nice day. 

So I was in solitary confinement for a total of four years. However my husband was also in solitary confinement for 12 years. And the impact it had on him when he came home is the reason I do this. He couldn't function in a normal busy environment. How do you handle that when you've been with somebody for 20 years and they come home totally traumatized with natural life? 

David Smith: I spent 16 and a half months in solitary confinement. I got out twice a week for a five minute shower, and then once every other week for a one hour time of rec time by myself. 

It basically tore me mentally down. And I saw people around me that suffered so much worse than I did. There are people that would lay in bed all day. Not even get up to use the toilet. 

Miles: Coalition Chair David Smith Is describing a Virginia jail which is not operated by Virginia's prison system. But his description is consistent with experiences shared by jail and prison inmates all over the country. Solitary, isolation, segregation, restricted housing - all names for what prisoners call being "in the hole." 

In 2011, the United Nations ruled solitary confinement amounts to torture and should be banned in most cases. Symptoms like headaches, delusions, and suicidal thoughts can set in after just a few days. But some in America's jails and prisons are held in isolation for weeks, months, or years. 

In Virginia, one of the most publicized cases is that of Tyquine Lee. In isolation for nearly two years at the end of which his mother says he had lost 30 pounds and was unable to speak except in barks, growls, and numbers. 

White: The purpose of corrections is just that. To deal with the underlying issue of why people are committing crimes. Not to make them into people that can't take care of themselves. 

Miles: When comparing prisoners who experience solitary and those who never did, multiple studies correlate any time spent in isolation with increased risk of self-harm, suicide, and early death.  Also higher unemployment and likelihood of repeat offenses. Looking at a study from UNC Chapel Hill, those who spent time in solitary are 127% more likely to die of an opioid overdose within two weeks of leaving prison. 

White: You should not be defined by the worst mistake you ever made in your life. I don't care what it is. We've all made mistakes. But you cannot say you're truly a good person if you're willing to torture other people. If you have human moral standards, and you're compassionate towards other human beings, then you will agree that solitary confinement needs to go.  

Voice of King Salim Khalfani: So, we want to reduce the use of solitary confinement in Virginia.  

Miles: Religious leaders from numerous faiths have held news conferences and prayer vigils. 

Miranda Elliott Rader: To keep people in solitary confinement for more than just a few days is  literally torturing people, definitionally torture, and we could end that practice. Just chipping away at the cruelties that we've constructed for each other. 

Miles: Virginia's Department of Corrections has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country. Meaning that those who serve time tend not to re-offend and return to prison. VDOC has also earned awards and praise for progressive education and reentry programs. 

But what about solitary confinement? 

Lois Fegan: No, the term you mentioned doesn't apply here. So our program... 

Miles: This brings us to the debate over the definition of solitary confinement, which for some is merely an exercise in semantics. There is a general consensus among reputable health and human rights organizations that solitary confinement is 22 or more hours in isolation without meaningful human contact. 

But Virginia's prisons claim inmates only spend 20 hours per day in isolation. That's a two hour difference. 

Fegan: So our program actually goes above and beyond that because we offer at least four hours every day of meaningful, structured/unstructured programming for all the inmates that are in this specialized secure pod. So our program was called restrictive housing and now we've called it restorative housing. 

Miles: The prisoner's rights community calls the distinction between 20 hours and 22 hours meaningless, especially if time outside the cell is also spent in isolation. Legislation that advocates have proposed for Virginia say every inmate is entitled to at least four hours of meaningful interaction outside of a cell. And if solitary confinement should be necessary for extreme situations, not minor infractions, it should last no more than 15 days. 

Fegan: But just to reiterate that we do offer the most progressive program in the country of opportunities, programs, and pathways for every single inmate that's in our care, but particularly the ones that come to us in sort of a crisis. Whether it be a difficult situation, a behavioral issue. 

Miles: Demario Tyler has been in crisis his whole life. This is the crime that landed him in prison. He broke into two restaurants in 2016 looking for money or food. Before that, he'd spent more than 10 years in foster care. His mother died when he was 10. His autobiography is painted in shades of anger, frustration, sadness, and worry in the letters he's written from prison over several years. In 2019, The Washington Post featured excerpts of Tyler's letters without using his name. He wrote, "It's taking all the mental power I have to cope here. These people make me want to hurt them one minute due to the treatment I'm receiving, and the next minute I want to hurt myself." 

Miles: Tyler finished his time at Wallens Ridge in 2020, but is now re-incarcerated in Hampton on new charges. Those stem from when he called police to stop him from trying to kill himself. Six months after his release from Wallens Ridge.  

While at Wallens Ridge, Tyler's way out of isolation was the Prison Step Down Program. Through which inmates earn their way back to general population. Step Down is a prized element of what VDOC calls restorative housing. 

Fegan: The core component of the program is called interactive journaling. And so the inmates have the opportunity to do it together with other people in the restorative housing program. 

Miles: The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class action suit to end the Step Down program. They allege that the program in practice is arbitrary, sometimes retaliatory, and mostly a ruse to keep inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely.  

Do you feel comfortable saying everyone who's incarcerated in Virginia's prison system is treated humanely? No issues with people being placed in a restorative housing or segregated situation against their will if that individual does not pose a real threat to the institution? 

Fegan: I'm comfortable saying that. I feel that all the inmates in our system are treated humanely and fairly with respect and with compassion. And again our whole mission, you can see it on the wall here in this building, is we're in the business of helping people be better. 

Miles: Letters and calls from inmates and family members allege that restorative housing and the Step Down program don't work the way administration describes. 

White: As a formerly incarcerated woman I know that the issues that surround incarceration are not for me if they don't involve me. 

I'm the only one that can tell you the truth. 

Miles: To some, people convicted of crimes deserve whatever happens to them. It's also true that people serving time can have credibility issues when they make accusations of mistreatment. 

White says ending solitary confinement should be less about prisoners' credibility and more about our regard for basic human rights. 

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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