The Virginia Department of Corrections said Thursday that it has ended what it calls “restrictive housing” in prisons. The ACLU of Virginia and other advocates for prison inmates — who call the practice “solitary confinement” — disagree.
Harold W. Clarke, director of the DOC, announced in a statement that on Jan. 6, 2020, the department began “a progressive revision of its restrictive housing program by offering at least four hours of out-of-cell time for inmates in restrictive housing.”
“By offering a minimum of four hours of out-of-cell time each day to all inmates in these programs, the Department no longer operates anything that meets the American Correctional Association definition of restrictive housing,” Clarke said.
Effective Aug. 1, the effort will culminate with the adoption of what the department calls “restorative housing.”
“The Department will continue to enhance this reform effort by maintaining a high level of safety and security while offering meaningful programming opportunities for inmates on a pathway to a successful future within the program and beyond,” Clarke said in his statement.
The ACLU of Virginia and Interfaith Action for Human Rights responded that the claimed elimination of restrictive housing is not true.
“Solitary confinement by any other name is still solitary confinement,” the ACLU said. Restrictive housing is defined by the American Correctional Association as the confinement of a person to a cell for 20 or more hours per day.
“The Virginia Department of Corrections claims that for the last 18 months, everyone in ‘restrictive housing’ has received more than four hours a day out of their cell, and that the Department ‘no longer operates anything that meets the American Correctional Association definition of restrictive housing.’”
The organization alleged that numerous people have complained of the department’s use of solitary confinement.
“A report filed earlier this year by an independent, court-appointed monitor concluded that Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women routinely isolates people with mental illnesses for 23 hours or more a day,” the ACLU said.
The ACLU said that earlier this year when lawmakers introduced a bill to end solitary confinement, requiring that every incarcerated person be given four hours out of cell per day with few exceptions, the department claimed it would cost $23 million per year to implement, effectively killing the bill’s chances of passage.
Last month, a federal court allowed the ACLU to continue its class-action lawsuit against the department over its use of long-term solitary confinement in Virginia’s Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons. The lengths of stay in solitary confinement of the 12 named plaintiffs in the case range from two to 24 years, the ACLU said.
The Department of Corrections, contends the ACLU, “is able to make these unsubstantiated claims because there is no system of independent oversight over Virginia prisons, and therefore the public has no way to verify its alleged reforms, including whether the new so-called Restorative Housing unit will operate as another version of solitary confinement.”
“The state legislature has killed bills aimed at improving prison conditions and ending solitary confinement. Governor Ralph Northam could end the barbaric practice with the stroke of his pen,” the ACLU said.
Gay Gardner, with Interfaith Action for Human Rights, wrote in an email that the group is aware that it has been the department’s official policy since early 2020 to allow four hours of out-of-cell time for prisoners in restrictive housing.
“However, this policy has not been widely or consistently implemented. Particularly since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, we have heard from even prisoners in general population who have not been getting four hours outside their cells each day,” she wrote.
The Department of Corrections also said Thursday that reform efforts include the Secure Diversionary Treatment Program for inmates with serious mental illness. Last week, that program won the 2021 State Transformation in Action Recognition award from the Council of State Governments’ Southern Legislative Conference.
The Secure Diversionary Treatment Program, said the department, manages the growing number of inmates with serious mental illness in the criminal justice system.
“It was developed to divert inmates with a serious mental illness who are at risk of engaging in severe and disruptive incidents from a restrictive housing setting into a program where their unique needs are met and supported,” the department said.