Author Archives: Dick Hall-Sizemore

More on Solitary Confinement

(This is a follow-up to, and expansion on, an earlier post by Jim Bacon on solitary confinement.)

“Solitary confinement” is a term fraught with dread or terror. It conjures up images of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, or, in real life, John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton. That is not the reality in Virginia prisons. 

During my tenure at the Department of Planning and Budget, the Department of Corrections was my primary assignment. As part of that assignment, I toured Virginia prisons each summer for about 20 years. I realize that my visits were somewhat sanitized. I was accompanied, most of the time, by senior DOC officials. As a result, the inmates and officers were probably on their best behavior and DOC officials did not tell or show me everything  (They would have if I had asked, but I did not always know enough to ask.)  With those caveats, however, I think I have a good sense of the overall situation.

By its very terms, “solitary confinement” means being confined alone, not having contact with other humans. That is not the case with Virginia prisons. Those inmates housed in DOC’s version of “solitary” confinement are in single cells, but can communicate with their guards, can leave their cells several times a week for showers and outdoor recreation, have regular visits from counselors and psychologists, and, in some cases, can participate in education or other programming. As a result, DOC avoids the term “solitary confinement.”  Instead, it uses other terms. For a long time, such offenders were placed in “segregation.”  More recently, the euphemism is “restrictive housing”.  (Another outside analyst I worked with responded to this term by saying, “I thought all correctional housing was restrictive!”)  Continue reading

Let Your Light Shine

I have been reluctant to weigh in on the recent discussions dealing with electricity demand and related topics because such topics are way beyond my experience.   However, a recent New York Times article highlighted one topic that has come up in our discussions—energy conservation—that I found fascinating.  The article points out that the residential demand for electricity per household in the U.S. rose steadily from 1970 to about 2010, but then began to decline.

A primary reason given for the decline, cited in both the NYT article and in more detail by an energy economist from UC Berkley?   The large-scale switch to more efficient light bulbs.

The catalyst for the switch was 2007 Congressional legislation mandating efficiency standards for bulbs.  When the second phase of that legislation takes effect next year, only compact fluorescent and LED bulbs will meet the standards.  LED bulbs use up to 85 percent less electricity than traditional bulbs and can last up to 25 years.  And, as with most new technology, the price has come down as it has been more widely accepted.

This is a good example of government-set standards that have spurred a new industry, reduced costs for consumers, and conserved energy, with only minor disruptions.

Bad Analysis, Legislative Gamesmanship, Misplaced Priorities

In 2016, Keith Harward was released from Virginia’s prisons after serving 33 years for a crime he did not commit.

Harward was convicted of a 1982 rape and murder largely on the basis of the testimony of forensic dentists that bite marks on the victim matched his teeth. Many years later, following improvements in DNA testing methods, analysis of evidence left at the crime scene excluded Harward as the perpetrator.

The use of bite marks and other traditional evidence such as hair analysis has been largely discredited as being unreliable and having little scientific basis by both the National Academy of Sciences (here) and by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (here).  In addition, the current guidelines of the professional governing body for forensic dentists recommends the use of bite mark evidence only for exculpatory purposes (here).

Virginia rules for the introduction of new evidence after a person has been found guilty of a crime are among the strictest in the nation. Generally, a convicted person has only 21 days following the entry of a final order by the court to bring forward new evidence supporting his or her innocence. There are two exceptions. If there is new evidence that was unknown or unavailable at the trial, the convicted person may petition the Court of Appeals to consider that evidence and set aside the finding of guilty. However, the bar is high for anyone to use this avenue. The other exception relates to previously unknown or untested “human biological evidence”, i.e. DNA testing. Upon learning the results of such testing, the convicted person may petition the Virginia Supreme Court for a writ of actual innocence. Again, the conditions under which such a writ can be granted are strict. Failing to succeed with, or qualify for, these methods, the convicted person may petition the Governor for a pardon. Continue reading