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Legislators Join the Call to Reform Solitary in Virginia

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January 23, 2012

The overuse of solitary confinement concerns some members of the Virginia legislature. According to Senator Adam Ebbin and Delegates Charniele Herring and Patrick Hope, there are simply too many prisoners in solitary for too long.

The three visited Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison over the summer and were moved to write an opinion piece in the Washington Post calling for reform of the system. They describe witnessing prisoners “confined in an 80-square-foot cell 23 hours a day, seven days a week.” As the legislators go on to explain, many of the 1800 prisoners kept in such conditions “have been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses.” Often they are isolated for years on end, including one prisoner the legislators spoke with who had been in solitary for more than 12 years.

As the Post wrote in an editorial last week, “prolonged solitary confinement can lead to devastating consequences, including psychosis, reduced brain function, debilitating depression and increased rates of suicide.” And as we’ve written before, the overuse of solitary to isolate people, especially the mentally ill, for years at a time actually makes us all less safe. Many prisoners are released directly from solitary confinement into the community when their prison sentences are up, completely unprepared for the outside world. Unsurprisingly, these folks return to prison at incredibly high rates, leading many to question these costly policy choices that create more harm than good.

The movement to reform solitary confinement is gaining steam, in Virginia and across the nation. States as diverse as Mississippi, Maine and Colorado have dramatically reduced their solitary populations in recent years, saving those states money and ultimately making them safer by ensuring that prisoners who re-enter society are better equipped to do so.

Now, Ebbin, Herring and Hope have introduced a bill to study the feasibility of limiting the widespread use of segregation for long periods of time in Virginia. We hope the state will follow in the footsteps of other states that have moved in the right direction and begun to reduce their reliance on solitary.

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