State agencies put price tags on lawmakers’ bills, but Sen. Joe Morrissey had never seen one like this.
The Virginia Department of Corrections projected that it would cost $23 million a year to enact his bill to end most uses of solitary confinement in state prisons.
“They must be confused with the bill that I’m introducing next year to build an Olympic-sized pool in every DOC facility,” said Morrissey, D-Richmond. He said he found out about the estimate on Tuesday, the day before his bill was to be heard by a committee that would decide if the state could afford it.
The bill would end solitary confinement unless needed for medical or mental health treatment, or if an inmate posed a threat to himself or another person.
Solitary confinement “has an extreme mental and physical debilitating effect on individuals and mental health that carries over once they get out,” Morrissey said. “And those individuals could cause more harm to themselves or others having been in solitary confinement for an extended period of time.”
The bill would require prisons to evaluate the inmates considered a threat who are put in solitary confinement.
The Department of Corrections sent information to the state budget department saying there are about 400 inmates in what the department calls “restrictive housing” at any given time, and there would be a big cost to do the evaluations of inmates required under Morrissey’s bill.
The department predicted it would need to hire 44 nurses at a cost of $89,310 each and 44 doctors at a cost of $325,423 each, totaling $18.3 million a year.
The department said it would need to hire 27 psychologists and six psychiatrists at an annual cost of $4.7 million.
On top of that $23 million, the state Department of Juvenile Justice projected it would cost $1.7 million a year for more staff, plus an additional $418,000 to buy uniforms, supplies and equipment, for that agency to end solitary confinement.
Brian Moran, the state secretary of public safety and homeland security, said he did not work on the cost estimate. He declined to say whether he thought it was reasonable.
Morrissey says he believes there would be cost savings from ending solitary confinement.
“When you have an individual in solitary confinement, you have to do more individual supervision of that inmate — sending a DOC official by frequently to check on his or her well-being,” he said. “My bill ends solitary confinement. So I have no clue as to why they would do that other than to defeat the bill.”
Morrissey offered amendments to his bill in the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee on Wednesday he said were designed to alleviate the cost concerns. Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said the agency would examine the new bill soon.
The committee approved the bill, but with a provision that it could only become law if money to pay for it is budgeted. Currently, no money is budgeted for the bill, and the House of Delegates has a long-standing policy of not passing bills that are not funded.
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said information lawmakers get from the Department of Planning and Budget tends to go against bills that would reform the criminal justice system.
“Everybody refuses to try to estimate the positive fiscal impacts of criminal justice reform,” he said. “We get information that tends to bias, or create reasons to vote against a bill instead of a reason to vote for a bill.”
The Virginia Department of Corrections in January settled two lawsuits related to solitary confinement. A mentally ill inmate was allegedly held in solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison for 600 days, leading to a mental and physical collapse. The department agreed to a $150,000 settlement and agreed to transfer the inmate to a prison in New Jersey so he could be closer to his mother.
In another case, an inmate who does not speak English was allegedly held in solitary confinement for 12 years; the department settled a lawsuit in that case for $115,000.