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.

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6 responses to “However You Define it, Solitary Confinement is Barbarous

  1. Mr. Thorpe deserves a response to his post in order that he realize that his effort, initiative, and comments are not being ignored.

    Because inmates do not have direct access to the Internet, I am not going to review his comments in detail. However, I want to make a couple of clarifications. The first one regards the data report on restricted housing, or solitary confinement, if you will, required by the GA. I am not opposed to DOC collecting and reporting this information. As stated earlier, my concerns are twofold. First, I hope the data collection is not a useless exercise, with the report being ignored by the legislature and administration, as are so many such reports. Second, because of the nature of this raw data, to be responsible, any substantive use of it needs to take into account the circumstances behind individual cases.

    My second general comment is that I have always advocated the humane treatment of all inmates, including those in restricted housing. As I urged in my post, DOC should investigate the disturbing incidents cited in the ACLU report. I would go further to say that, to its benefit, DOC should report publicly on the results of its investigations and any actions it took as a result.

  2. Solitary confinement does sound barbarous … especially over the course of 21 years. Everybody on this blog should be honest – our state government screws up a lot of things. Why would anybody be surprised to find that our state prisons are screwed up too? Virginia has the 14th highest incarceration rate with 449 out of every 100,000 Virginians behind bars. Was it really necessary to eliminate / heavily restrict parole? In 2016 Virginia had more marijuana arrests than New York or California (and neither state had legal recreational pot in 2016). Does that sound right to you? Does that sound like a worthwhile expenditure of state resources?

    I think Mr. Thorpe’s comments and the ACLU report need to be taken seriously.

    • I was not in support of the elimination of parole, either. However, there is a feature of Virginia’s criminal justice system, of which most people are unaware, that mitigates the elimination of parole. The judiciary uses voluntary sentencing guidelines, which judges follow 80 percent of the time. (More on the sentencing guidelines in a later post.) The guidelines for nonviolent offenses were based on the historical time served for each offense, not on the actual sentences given. The result is sentences recommended by the guidelines for offenders sentenced today for nonviolent offenses largely mirror the actual time served in the past by offenders for the same offenses who were released on parole. For violent offenders, the story is different. The guidelines were calculated for those offenses and then “enhancements” made for the violence of the offense.

      Many will argue that the elimination of parole has contributed significantly to the state’s recidivism rate. Violent offenders are kept locked up until they are well past their crime-prone years. I don’t buy this argument, but, again, that is a topic for anther time.

      Another comment: DOC is not responsible for the state’s high incarceration rate. It houses those offenders arrested by police and convicted by courts.

      Final comment: I do not understand the high arrest rate for marijuana possession. It has been going up in recent years. However, few, if any, offenders serve time in Virginia prisons simply for marijuana possession. Some may serve some time in jail, but even that is a relatively small number.

      • Criminal justice in Virginia is, as with most things in Virginia, overly complicated and weird. We eliminated parole but not really. We have long term solitary confinement but we don’t want to call it that. We slap kids with marijuana busts that may not land them in prison but do give them a record which hinders the future progress of those arrested. We have a procedural system that makes it very hard to introduce new evidence after a trial – even when it includes the results of new technology. AS Mary Sue Terry said … evidence of innocence is irrelevant under Virginia’s procedural rules (See the case of Joseph Giarrantano). Innocent people have been on Virginia’s death row (See the case of Earl Washington, Jr). Even when new DNA evidence exonerates people like Mr. Washington he still can’t get a new trial (he was given a full pardon by James Gilmore).

        African Americans are arrested at a much higher rate than whites in Virginia. Then they are shipped off to Red Onion or Wallens Ridge in lilly white Wise County. Educational opportunities at Red Onion are minimal but 45% of the inmates have sentences of 15 years or less. In other words, after being cut off from family and friends, often placed into solitary confinement / restrictive housing and provided only minimal educational opportunities the inmates are … released back into society.

        It seems to me that Virginia needs to step back and take a completely fresh look at our laws, law enforcement, jails and prisons.

  3. Solitary confinement is a severe punishment but I doubt it’s handed out easily. Before judging the propriety of solitary punishment, we must first know for what the inmate is incarcerated. What did he do to other people? How did he do it? What was the impact of the crime on the victim, his/her family and friends? And then, what were the incidents that caused prison authorities to put the prisoner into solitary?

    Absent a discussion of these facts, no plea for mercy is appropriate. And, of course, no discussion of these issues is made by the ACLU.

  4. My feeling is that solitary confinement over long periods of time – is REALLY a type of purposely inflicted torture – and we do not torture people if we say we are humane. If we are not – then this actually says something about us – not the person we are torturing.

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