September 12, 2016
The Honorable Terry McAuliffe
Governor, Commonwealth of Virginia
Patrick Henry Building, 3rd floor
1111 East Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23219
Dear Governor McAuliffe:
We, the undersigned human rights, interfaith, civil liberties, and social justice organizations, are writing to urge you to implement reforms on the use of solitary confinement (sometimes called “restrictive housing” or “segregation”) in facilities across the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Last January, President Obama announced steps to reduce the use of isolated confinement in federal prisons, recognizing that it has been overused and can result in profound physiological and psychological damage. Indeed, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that prolonged isolation can produce irreparable neurological harm to those subjected to it.
Prolonged isolation of prisoners is increasingly recognized around the world as inhumane and a serious human rights violation. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners state that solitary confinement should never be used for indefinite periods and in the rare circumstances in which it is used, no longer than 15 consecutive days.
President Obama pointed out that the impact of prolonged isolation on prisoners’ mental health and ability to interact with others undermines their capacity to reintegrate into society when they are released. The practice of solitary confinement is detrimental to public safety and the broader public interest in rehabilitation. Moreover, permanently warehousing prisoners in isolation is much more expensive to taxpayers.
The changes implemented by President Obama include: 1.) a ban on isolating juvenile offenders; 2.) placing individuals who need to be in protective custody in less restrictive settings; and 3.) providing mentally ill inmates with alternative housing and access to mental health services. The President announced that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would adopt fifty guiding principles recommended by the Department of Justice (DOJ). These principles include the following:
- Inmates should be housed in the least restrictive setting necessary to ensure their own safety, as well as the safety of staff, other inmates, and the public.
- Correctional systems should always be able to clearly articulate the specific reason(s) for an inmate’s placement and retention in restrictive housing.
- For every inmate in restrictive housing, correctional staff should develop a clear plan for returning the inmate to less restrictive conditions as promptly as possible. The plan should be shared with the inmate, unless doing so would jeopardize the safety of the inmate, staff, other inmates, or the public.
- An inmate’s initial and ongoing placement in restrictive housing should be regularly reviewed by a multi-disciplinary staff committee, which should include not only the leadership of the institution where the inmate is housed, but also medical and mental health professionals.
The ACLU of Virginia wrote to you on January 26, 2016, asking you to follow the President’s lead and ban all use of solitary confinement in the juvenile justice system and to take action to reduce the use of solitary confinement in adult prisons.
The DOJ has now recommended that all corrections systems implement the fifty guiding principles adopted by the federal BOP. Accordingly, we, the undersigned, ask you to direct the Virginia Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice to implement these guidelines in all state facilities in the Commonwealth of Virginia and to incorporate these guidelines in the standards used to accredit local and regional jails. We further urge you to require the governing boards of these agencies to establish a mechanism for verifying ongoing compliance with these principles. These actions would help consolidate your administration’s legacy as one that is serious about promoting rehabilitation and facilitating reintegration of criminal offenders as productive members of society.
Although the practice of confining prisoners to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day is carried out under a variety of housing labels, and although inmates confined in this way may have varying degrees of access to reading material, television, and other electronic media, there is undeniable damage to those who spend nearly all their time confined to their cells with no meaningful human contact. These conditions of confinement are especially inappropriate for juveniles and mentally ill prisoners. As a first step toward implementing the DOJ guidelines, we urge you to follow the President’s lead by banning segregation/restrictive housing for juvenile offenders and those with serious mental illness.
Moreover, we urge you to devote special attention to the need for transparency in the use of segregation/restrictive housing. Human rights organizations, including Interfaith Action for Human Rights, have documented instances in which inmates at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge State Prisons, after being charged with a disciplinary infraction, have languished in segregation for periods far exceeding the 30-day limit on disciplinary segregation in the Virginia Department of Corrections’ operating procedures, without receiving any indication of when they can expect to return to the general prison population. This is clearly inconsistent with the DOJ guidelines.
Implementing the DOJ guidelines and following the example the President set with respect to federal prisons will help protect public safety, save taxpayer funds, and prevent unjustifiable harm to inmates that thwarts their ability to reenter society in a constructive manner. We hope to hear from you soon regarding the specific corrective action you will be taking.
American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia
Amnesty International USA
Interfaith Action for Human RIghts
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
Social Action Linking Together (SALT)
Virginia Council of Churches
Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy