However You Define it, Solitary Confinement is Barbarous

by William Thorpe

In a recent column about solitary confinement, Richard Hall-Sizemore discredited any observations he made based upon his visits to Virginia prisons when he acknowledged that guards and correctional officials may not have showed or told him everything. “They would have if I had asked, but I did not always know enough to ask,” he confessed.

Mr. Hall-Sizemore is in accord with his compatriot Mr. James Bacon, who in an earlier work about solitary confinement opposed the idea that conclusions should be fact-based and data driven, in defending the indefensible.

We are hard-pressed to take Mr. Hall-Sizemore’s column seriously. Is he saying that if Virginia’s use of Solitary Confinement doesn’t comport with Hollywood’s depiction of prison — i.e Cool Hand Luke, The Great Escape, or Communist North Vietnam’s practice of Solitary Confinement — then it is not Solitary Confinement and that society can safely ignore what is being done by its prison officials? If this is Mr. Hall-Sizemore’s position, then the vehicle of its dissemination, Bacon Rebellion, sullies the deeds of Nathanial Bacon in 1676. But considering the the reactionary worldview Mr. Hall-Sizemore’s work intimates, it isn’t surprising that the historical Bacon’s Rebellion and its ethos have been misappropriated and perverted.

Mr. Hall-Sizemore lectures us in his Solitary Confinement 101 that “by its very terms,” “Solitary Confinement” means being confined alone and not having contact with other humans. That is not the case with Virginia prisons. Inmates housed in DOC’s version of “Solitary” confinement are in single cells but can communicate with guards, 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 another programming.

Accordingly, the DOC avoids the term “Solitary Confinement.” Instead, it uses other terms such as “restrictive housing.” In effect, Mr. Hall-Sizemore’s argument is with DOC’s definition of Solitary Confinement. The only logical conclusion is that Mr. Hall-Sizemore is comfortable with the kind of government-sanctioned and -perpetrated barbarity that a federal judge in Porter vs. Clarke has found violates the U.S. Constitution prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Mr. Hall-Sizemore writes: “The ACLU and other advocacy groups could seize on the data [on Solitary Confinement] and make superficial conclusions. The management of inmates is a complex business and each case needs to be examined on its own merits. It would be easy to draw misleading conclusions about the use or misuse of Restrictive Housing if one does not look at individual circumstances.”

By referring to Solitary Confinement as Restrictive Housing, Mr. Hall-Sizemore anticipates the federal judge in Porter vs. Clarke, who said, and I paraphrase, regardless of the label used, if prisoners are being warehoused and confined in cells for 20 hours or more it is Solitary Confinement.

What Mr. Hall-Sizemore and those of his inclination forget is the practice of imprisonment in the Commonwealth of Virginia is based on the Rule of Law and must adhere to legal process. As the judge in the Madrid v. Gomez case dealing with the use of Solitary Confinement in California stated, and I paraphrase, prison officials are not at liberty to act on their each and every impulse as they see fit.

If Solitary Confinement with all its attendant evils is the state’s solution, the logical extension of Mr. Hall-Sizemore’s argument is that the state could lobotomize prisoners. But the Constitution or rule of law will not permit it. So Mr. Hall Sizemore’s argument against the collection of Solitary Confinement data to make prison practices more transparent and prison officials more accountable, smells of the prison officials’ logic in justification of the status quo. It’s high time we relegated such regurgitations to the ash heap of savagery.

It would be a breath of fresh air if Messers Hall-Sizemore and Bacon recognized the value of transparency, accountability and the due process of the rule of law. No one is above the law, especially the prison officials who are sworn to uphold it. Transparency of data regarding the practice of Solitary Confinement will redeem Virginia society and its governance.

William Thorpe has been in Solitary Confinement at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison since its opening in 1998.