ACLU Sues to End Solitary Confinement at Virginia Prisons

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A class of inmates represented by the American Civil Liberties Union brought a federal lawsuit Monday to stop solitary confinement at two maximum-security prisons in Virginia, arguing that a program meant to return prisoners to the general population is actually a veiled attempt at keeping them in solitary.

The class action filed in Richmond federal court by attorneys with the ACLU of Virginia and the law firm White & Case claims the state Department of Corrections’ “step-down program” used to phase inmates out of solitary confinement in Red Onion and Wallens Ridge maximum-security prisons violates their rights to due process and equal protection.

“The current step-down program is a system of vague standards, contradictory goals, and malleable jargon used to conceal what is nothing more than an indefinite or permanent solitary confinement regime,” the lawsuit states.

The ACLU defines solitary confinement, also known as restrictive housing or administrative segregation, as the practice of keeping someone in a small space for 22 hours or more per day with little to no stimulation or human contact.

Lead plaintiff William Thorpe and his 11 named co-plaintiffs say they suffered physical and mental harm from their experiences in long-term solitary confinement, including auditory and visual hallucinations, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe sensory deprivation and suicidal thoughts.

 “Extensive scientific research demonstrates that people consistently suffer a number of dysfunctional psychological states and outcomes when deprived of meaningful social contact and a normal range of sensory input (such as exposure to natural light, outdoor sounds, and varying colors) for long periods,” the complaint states. “According to experts in the field, these harms can manifest in as little as 10 days.” (Parentheses in original.)

The Virginia Department of Corrections first implemented the step-down program in 2012 to gradually ease solitary prisoners back into the general population through a complex, behavior-modification process.  

“The step-down program is a complicated maze with many components, a lot of which set vague and subjective standards that leave people with no way to progress or re-enter the general population,” Vishal Agraharkar, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Virginia, told Courthouse News.

Agraharkar said periodic reviews are conducted based on elements of an inmate’s progress, such as hygiene, respect and interpersonal relationships with staff. The subjectivity of these qualifiers can lead to a prisoner’s time in solitary confinement extended by minor infractions or arbitrary decisions, he said.

The attorney said it is especially difficult for inmates to progress through the step-down program when facing language barriers or mental illness.

Last year, the ACLU of Virginia also sued on behalf of one program participant who had difficulty phasing out of solitary confinement because one requirement is the completion of various journals. The plaintiff in that case speaks Spanish and could not read or write, hindering his ability to be released back into the general population.  

The proposed class in Monday’s lawsuit includes past, current and future inmates at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge at the “Level S” or “Level 6” security levels who have been involved in the step-down program. They include people have mental illnesses, which can make it even more difficult to get through the program.

The ACLU says people with neurological issues are overrepresented in prison systems nationwide, accounting for 25% of inmates in Virginia’s prison system and 45% of prisoners in short-term solitary confinement.

A U.S. Department of Justice report from 2017 said that even relatively short periods of restrictive housing can adversely affect inmates’ mental health, and can be particularly harmful for those with existing mental illnesses.

The Virginia Department of Corrections could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit.

In a related case, the Fourth Circuit on Friday upheld a ruling in favor of Virginia death-row inmates, finding that their living conditions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The appeals court ruled that the state was “deliberately indifferent” to physical and psychological harm caused by their confinement, including limited recreation time.

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