To: The Virginia State House and The Virginia State Senate
Members of Virginia's General Assembly: Support HB 795, to limit isolated confinement in Virginia...
Please co-patron and support HB 795, a bill to amend the Code of Virginia by adding a section numbered 53.1-39.1, relating to isolated confinement in prisons.
Why is this important?
Prolonged solitary confinement is torture. There is a strong consensus among mental health professionals, supported by scientific evidence, that isolation exceeding 15 consecutive days can permanently alter brain chemistry and cause lasting damage to mental health. It often creates illness in those who were healthy before their incarceration and exacerbates illness in those who were already ill. That is why the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners include a limit on isolated confinement of 15 consecutive days. Most people in prison will return to society one day; they should not emerge from prison worse than when they went in because of the harmful impact of solitary confinement.
There is growing recognition that the use of solitary confinement needs to be reduced to an absolute minimum. Several other states have passed legislation that either drastically restricts solitary confinement in state prisons or requires a comprehensive study of potential reforms. Virginia should join the states that are leading the way to reducing the use of isolated confinement to a bare minimum.
Although Virginia has reduced the number of men in long-term solitary confinement at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge through its Step-Down Program, serious problems remain unsolved by that program:
• Solitary confinement is not being used strictly as a last resort.
• Too many people with mental illness and other disabling conditions remain in solitary confinement even though that is virtually certain to exacerbate their underlying conditions.
• Prisoners are not given written reasons when they are placed in solitary confinement and have no certainty about how long it will last.
• Prisoners do not have unimpeded access to an effective mechanism for challenging their placement or retention in solitary confinement.
• There is very little communication with prisoners about why they fail to advance or experience setbacks within the Step-Down Program, or why it takes so long to complete the program.
• Even though VDOC operating procedures limit “disciplinary segregation” to 30 days, prisoners are sometimes kept in solitary confinement for much longer periods after receiving disciplinary charges.
HB 795 addresses these problems with the following provisions:
• Defines “isolated confinement” as confinement of an individual to his or her cell for more than 20 hours a day
• With certain exceptions, bars isolated confinement of members of a vulnerable population (including those with mental illness and certain other conditions) and limits isolated confinement of others to 15 consecutive days, or no more than 20 days in any 60-day period
• Requires written notification to the individual of the reasons for his or her placement in isolated confinement and a process by which the placement can be contested
• Requires certain training for Department of Corrections personnel, including regarding recognition of symptoms of mental illness and the impact of prolonged isolation on mental health
• Requires reporting to the General Assembly by the Department of Corrections of certain categories of data about those in isolated confinement
• Requires a study of mental health needs and services in state prisons
The full text of the bill is available at http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?181+ful+HB795.