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!”) 

There are basically two levels of restrictive housing. The first, temporary or administrative, consists of a special housing unit in an “ordinary” prison that is used to house temporarily those offenders who have committed a major infraction or infractions of rules. The second type is long-term restrictive housing in a special-purpose prison, primarily Red Onion in Southwest Virginia, for those offenders who are particularly violent and pose a major threat to staff and fellow offenders.

DOC has come a long way since the late 1990s in many ways, not the least in the way it deals with its most violent or hard-to-manage offenders. Up until the “supermax” prisons of Red Onion and Wallens Ridge were opened in the late 1990s, offenders in long-term segregation were housed in M building at Powhatan Correctional Center, now closed. That was a grim place. Even grimmer was the cell block in the basement of M building. That was a hell-hole that reminded one of something out of medieval times. (Even in such a place, however, inmates were allowed to have books and I once observed the warden chatting with one of the inmates in his cell.)

The supermax prisons that succeeded Powhatan were not much better. The facilities were purposely designed with no program or educational space. Even for those not assigned to restrictive housing, conditions were much more restrictive than at other prisons. Inmates were allowed out of their cells into common areas for only limited periods. For any movement between buildings, an inmate’s hands and feet were shackled and he was accompanied by at least one armed correctional officer. For those placed in long-term restrictive housing, it was the intent that inmates would leave their cells only for showers, about three times a week; for outdoor “recreation” in small cages, for one hour daily; for any medical reason that could not be addressed in their cells; for limited visitation; and for meeting with lawyers. Inmates housed in those facilities were subject to being shot with rubber bullets for the slightest infraction of rules. Being assigned to a supermax could be based on capricious or arbitrary reasons. One could be placed there solely on the basis of the offense for which he was convicted, regardless of any threat of escape or danger posed to officers or other offenders. There was a story of an offender being sent to Red Onion because he had embarrassed the DOC director in front of important guests.

The worst aspect of being confined in Red Onion or Wallens Ridge was that, once there, one would probably spend the rest of his sentence there. An often overlooked factor was that most of these inmates would be released into society at some point. It was not beneficial to society that men who had been locked up for years with little positive social contact should suddenly be released.

Over the years, conditions at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge improved noticeably. In 2011, DOC began a program of gradually bringing inmates out of their cells and engaging them in cognitive programming designed to enable them to develop positive attitudes and behavior, thereby enabling them to work “down” to lower security facilities. The result has been a significant reduction in the number of offenders held in long-term restrictive housing, from 511 in 2015 to 62 in 2019, according to DOC.  The agency has received national recognition and an award for the program and the U.S. Department of Justice highlighted it as one of five “particularly significant” state reforms.

More recently, DOC, perhaps to some extent as a result of the interest and prodding by legislators, primarily Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, has undertaken a revision of its use of restrictive housing throughout the system. The result has been a decrease in the number of inmates held in segregation. In many prisons, entire cell blocks that were originally used for segregation have either been closed down or converted to housing other inmates. Red Onion has had a large number of cells vacant for several years because DOC has classified fewer inmates at the security level designated for the prison. A December 2018 report of the Vera Institute for Justice, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization, detailed the reductions that DOC had achieved in restrictive housing and discussed its ongoing efforts on this issue.

As for vulnerable populations, about three years ago, DOC recognized that it had been holding severely mentally ill inmates in restrictive housing, primarily because of the difficulty in managing their aggressive behavior in less restrictive settings. The department instituted a program designed to provide more individualized treatment for these inmates and more structured and unstructured time out of their cells.

Although there has been considerable progress in official DOC policy and programs regarding restrictive housing, there are important indications of problems in implementing these policies and, more disturbingly, deliberate ignoring of policies by correctional personnel and abuse of inmates in restrictive housing. The Virginia ACLU issued a lengthy report last May of the status of solitary confinement in Virginia and the conditions in Red Onion and Wallens Ridge prisons. Much of the report is based on charges, allegations, and complaints lodged by inmates.  The ACLU did not seem to have followed up on these charges to determine their accuracy, but, to be fair, it probably would not have been possible to prove or disprove many of them. I learned over the years to treat the complaints of inmates with a great deal of skepticism; there is often a side of the story the inmate is not telling. However, there are too many of these charges in the ACLU report to write them off wholesale. There are some serious charges that DOC should investigate.

Turning to the legislation referenced in Jim’s post, it does not require a study, just the annual reporting of data by DOC to the General Assembly. I have two concerns about this. First, the state Code and Appropriation Act are littered with requirements for agencies to report data that was considered important at the moment. So, year after year, agencies have dutifully used staff time to compile the data and file these reports and those reports get filed away and no one looks at them or uses the data. This new requirement could meet that fate.

On the other hand, the ACLU and other advocacy groups could seize on the data 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.

DOC officials and staff have a difficult job dealing day in and day out with dangerous people. Some examples: In December 2018, two Red Onion correctional officers were seriously wounded and hospitalized by an inmate; a Red Onion inmate sent threatening letters to four courts throughout the country and told a judge he had planned to kill those people; a Red Onion inmate plotted with a gang member outside the prison to kill the warden of Red Onion; and a Red Onion inmate recently in the news for complaining about the conditions there had been transferred to the prison because he had stabbed another inmate twenty times.

In summary, corrections officials and personnel have a great deal of power and discretion over persons committed to their custody and there is ample opportunity and temptation to abuse that power and discretion. Oversight by outside advocacy groups and the legislature is needed and those entities need data and access to the correctional system to ensure that such oversight is effective. At the same time, those conducting the oversight must be willing to dig beneath the surface and be objective in their efforts.