On April 22, 2020, the ACLU of Virginia filed a petition on behalf of IAHR with the Virginia Supreme Court, known as a writ of mandamus, asking the Court to order government officials to fulfill their legal obligations in providing adequate care for people in custody during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The petition argues that overcrowded facilities and current conditions make social distancing impossible, and requests that officials decarcerate facilities as much as safely possible in order to adhere to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Virginia’s own Department of Health. Additionally, facilities must provide proper access to sanitation products and health care."Click to Read More
Dear Delegate ____:
I am writing on behalf of the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement* to alert you to the attached draft bill, which will be introduced in the upcoming session of the General Assembly. It is likely to be referred to the House Committee on Militia, Police, and Public Safety, of which you are a member. I am also attaching some brief background information about the bill. We hope you will support the bill, and we look forward to finding a convenient time to discuss it with you in the days ahead.
This is a modest bill that would require the Department of Corrections (DOC) to report annually to the Governor, the General Assembly, and the public certain basic information about who is in solitary confinement (“restrictive housing”), for how long, and for what reasons. As the DOC continues efforts to reduce the number of prisoners who are in prolonged isolation, we believe this information is essential for ensuring accountability and objectively assessing where remaining problems may persist. We also believe more data is needed regarding the mental health status and needs of incarcerated people, which this bill would begin to address.
We continue to hear from incarcerated people and family members of prisoners who have been in solitary confinement (“restrictive housing”) for indefinite and extensive periods – which is known to cause and/or exacerbate mental health problems – without access to a meaningful opportunity to challenge the decision to place or keep them in isolation. We also are aware of individuals with apparent untreated mental health issues who have spent prolonged periods in “restrictive housing.”
All Virginians have a stake in ensuring that incarceration does not inflict damage on prisoners that is avoidable and not part of their sentence. I hope you agree that minimizing the use of solitary confinement and treating prisoners in a way that is seen by the public to be consistent, transparent, accountable, and humane are important objectives. We look forward to talking with you about this important issue in the near future.
*The Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement represents Virginians who seek to minimize the use of prolonged solitary confinement and eliminate abusive treatment in detention facilities in Virginia. It includes Interfaith Action for Human Rights, the ACLU of Virginia, the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Virginia, VA-CURE, Social Action Linking Together (SALT), the Virginia Catholic Conference, the NAACP of Fairfax County, Amnesty International of Northern Virginia, Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement, and many individual citizens of the Commonwealth.
Proposed Legislation-Restrictive Housing-Solitary Confinement
State of Maryland
What Does the Proposed Legislation Do?
The Proposed Legislation sets limits on the use of restrictive housing in Maryland facilities and establishes a workgroup to oversee the use of restrictive housing across the state.
What is Restrictive Housing/Solitary Confinement
Restrictive housing is any form of physical separation in which the person incarcerated is placed in a locked room or cell for approximately 22 hours or more out of a 24 hour period.
Maryland Overuses and Misuses Restrictive Housing
How many people are in restrictive housing?
Nationally, 4-5% of those incarcerated are placed in restrictive housing. According to a letter that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services sent in 2016, on any given day 8% of the prison population is in restrictive housing (solitary). Moreover, in 2017 50% of Maryland’s prison population was placed in restrictive housing at least once.[i]
For how long?
According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, there should be an absolute ban on restrictive housing for longer than 15 days. Isolation longer than 15 days is considered an act of torture.[ii]
In Maryland, the average length of stay varies between 30 and 50 days depending on the type of segregation/restrictive housing.
What about re-entry?
Over two years (2016-2017) more than 500 people were released directly to the community, after spending an average of 50 days in restrictive housing.
What about the mentally ill?
According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, the mentally ill should never be placed in restrictive housing.
Over two years (2016-2017) more than 300 seriously mentally ill people were placed in restrictive housing in Maryland.
What about safety?
Prisoners who pose a safety risk can be separated from the general population without being placed in restrictive housing.
Overuse of Restrictive Housing is Unsafe
When a Mississippi facility transferred a large population of segregated prisoners to the general population, statistics showed an almost 70% drop in serious incidents.[iii]
A study of correctional systems in Illinois, Arizona, and Minnesota found that segregating some prisoners in supermax facilities did little or nothing to lower overall violence across the system.
According to a study published by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “States that have reduced segregation populations have found no adverse impact on institutional safety.”[iv]
Restrictive Housing Is Expensive
It is three times more expensive to hold a prisoner in segregation than in the general population.[i]
Colorado closed a 316-bed administrative segregation facility, which was projected to save $13.6 million in FY 13-14.[ii]
Illinois closed a supermax facility in 2013, saving about $26 million per year.[iii]
In 2007, Mississippi saved about $5.6 million per year-without layoffs or furloughs-when it closed an entire unit after reducing use of segregation.[iv]
Restrictive Housing Hurts Prisoners, Families, and Communities
Prisoners Suffer. Prisoners in restrictive housing have suffered physical and psychological harms, as psychosis, trauma, severe depression, serious self-injury, or suicide.
Families Suffer. When a prisoner is in restrictive housing, s/he is often banned from getting visits and calls from family—this not only punishes families, it breaks down the family ties that are crucial to supporting prisoners upon re-entry.
Communities Suffer. Many prisoners are released directly from restrictive housing into the community—this poses a serious threat to public safety. During restrictive housing, prisoners often have limited opportunity to seek support from faith leaders, who may be instrumental in supporting the inmate during confinement, but also in helping him to re-enter the community safely.
[ii] Interim Report of the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. A/66/268 (August 5, 2011), paragraph 78.
[iii] Kupers et al., Beyond Supermax Administrative Segregation: Mississippi’s Experience Rethinking Prison Classification and Creating Alternative Mental Health Programs, p.7 (July 2009), available at https://www.aclu.org/files/images/asset_upload_file359_41136.pdf
[iv] Federal Bureau of Prisons: Special Housing Unit Review and Assessment (December 2014). Available at
[v] Mears, Urban Institute, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons 20 (2006), available https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/211971.pdfs
[vi] News Release, Department of Corrections, The Department of Corrections Announces the Closure of Colorado State Penitentiary II (March 19, 2012) see http://www.doc.state.co.us/sites/default/files/Press%20release%20CSP%20II%20close%20%Feb%201%202013.pdf
[vii] Heather Rice:Close Tamms, limit use of solitary confinement, available at http://www.sj-r.com/x221030937/Heather-Rice-Close-Tamms-limit-use-of-solitary-confinement.
[viii] Vera Institute of Justice Blog, “Mississippi DOC’s Emmitt Sparkman on Reducing the Use of Segregation in Prisons,” October 11, 2011.
By: George Copeland Jr.
November 16, 2018
"David Smith doesn’t cut the figure of a man who’s been to prison, let alone one who spent more than a year in solitary confinement.
Dressed in a button-up white shirt, with tan khakis and a blue blazer, the impression Smith gives is more of a white collar worker. This impression isn’t out of place in the homely lower level of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, which served as the setting for a forum on Virginia solitary confinement on October 27. For Smith, this misconception is one of many aspects of a long-standing issue that prison-reform advocates want the state to address." Continue Reading...
Regarding the Oct. 14 editorial “Easing the torture of solitary”:
"While it may be true that nationwide, the number of incarcerated people in solitary is decreasing, Maryland and Virginia are significant abusers of solitary confinement.
In fiscal 2017, 50 percent of the Maryland prison population was in solitary at least once. The average length of stay was 45 days. Moreover, more than 500 people were released directly from solitary to the community. These statistics are reported by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services in its annual report.
In Virginia, the public does not know how many people have been placed in solitary nor what the average length of stay is. However, Interfaith Action for Human Rights has gathered significant anecdotal evidence that many individuals in Maryland and Virginia prisons have been in solitary for months and years. No judge sentences a person to solitary; it is always deployed at the discretion of the warden. Moreover, a number of states, such as Colorado, have effectively ended putting people in isolation.
It is time for Maryland and Virginia to put an end to this abuse of incarcerated people."
Charles Feinberg, Washington
The writer, a rabbi, is executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights. Click here to view the article.
John Robert Ashby is incarcerated at North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD. North Branch is a maximum-security prison and it has over 1000 inmates. Mr. Ashby has written a series of letters to Rabbi Feinberg and has given Rabbi Feinberg permission to edit them and publish them via the IAHR website and communication channels.
There was a Supreme Court Ruling: Miller vs Alabama. This ruling stated that the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole was unconstitutional. And, it’s being argued in Maryland that because the Governor doesn’t sign parole papers that those sentenced for crimes when (they were) juveniles are essentially doing life without parole! The State of Maryland doesn’t parole lifers. Governor Parris Glendening in the 90s took a hard-cold stance because someone on parole committed a murder. He said he would no longer parole anyone by signing (and being the final signature) on his parole papers. After he left office, all other governors have taken this hard, cold stance.
In Mr. Ashby’s own words:
I have been in some form of isolation since 1999 December… I have been incarcerated since October 16, 1989, since the age of 17… I am serving a life with parole sentence for murder and other related charges. I am almost in my 30th year in prison and almost 20 years of being in some form of isolation while in prison!
Editor’s note: On June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court, in Miller v. Alabama, ruled that imposing mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Editor's Note: Part two of a three-part series shares excerpts of letters from John Robert Ashby who is incarcerated in North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD. Last week’s letter introduced John’s experience of being incarcerated at 17 and how he’s spent 20 of his 30 years behind bars in solitary.
I was attacked by an inmate. I defended myself against his weapon (which I) was able to get from him and use on him. I was sent to what was Maryland’s Supermax. I did 4.5 years; I was charged with murder. I was going to court for the death penalty. I beat all charges.
I was sent back to Jessup (state prison in Jessup, MD), what was then the Maryland House of Corrections-Annex in 2004. Once there, I was placed on administrative segregation. After three months, I was let off into general population—only to be placed back in administrative segregation in 2005.
I was sent here to this institution (North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD). We were isolated (placed in solitary confinement) because this institution wasn’t finished being constructed.
On January 6, 2006, a mass disturbance occurred on the tier I/we were housed on. Several assaults on staff occurred; 16 of us were issued prison infractions.
At the hearing, I requested a video footage because it would show I didn’t do anything. The hearing officers says (sic-said) he (had) seen it but I can’t see it, which is my right.
I was given 6/12 years of segregation time.
I also was charged with assault charges and riot. During trial it was exposed that this hearing officer never reviewed a tape because at the time it wasn’t (uncertain word) available!!
Also, a guy (another prisoner) testified that I didn’t assault an officer on the blurry videotape. In fact, he stated it was him, all to no avail.
I was found guilty of assault and aiding and abetting assault. They say I was running around. Of course I was, because the entire tier was fogged up with mace and other chemical agents.
I was given nine years in Alleghany Correct(ional) house.
In August 2007, I along with 20 others were sent via ICC to the State of Virginia. We were held at Red Onion State Prison for a little over a year; we were brought back in August 2008. I did not want to return because I knew the ongoing abuse would continue, which it has.
I was placed back in segregation.
I have requested to be sent back to the State of Virginia. I have filed a lawsuit (see John Henry Ashby vs. Bobby Shearin). I have refused to come in from recreation cages in a peaceful protest(s) to get some justice from this administration.
Only to keep being told we are not letting you in general population…
Editor’s Note: The third and final part of a three-part series shares excerpts of letters from John Robert Ashby who is incarcerated in North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD.
In his own words:
Have I protested peacefully since I was returned from out of state, from Pound, VA, Red Onion State Prison in 2007-2008? Yes, I have. I have protested 2 times by refusing to lock in from outside cages.
My argument was why was I Brought Back to this State and I am being told continuously even after all (these) years of segregation are over, I won’t be placed in general population. Is this a fact, then please send me BACK OUT OF STATE?! That was my argument.
I have been on administrative segregation which means an investigation is pending.
It is supposed to last for 1 year. Outside of the years on disciplinary, I have been on administrative segregation for 3 years…
All because staff is saying I have too much INFLUENCE. Rabbi, my last infraction was refusing to come in from RECREATION CAGES IN 2013. In fact, except for buying another guy’s watch, I haven’t had an incident (report) in five years and that is considered a GOOD category.
Why does the REVIEW every month say NO CHANGE, you have too much INFLUENCE? Why haven’t they sent me back out of state if I am a VERIFIED LEADER IN DISRUPTIVE ACTIVITIES as they say?
REHABILITATION has become a farce. It’s now about PRISON LABOR, EXTREME ISOLATION and BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION EXPERIMENTS… (It is also about) monitoring of medicines, foods, and non-human contact REACTIONS…
John’s experience is not unique.
Can you hear the frustration and desperation in John’s words that I hear?
Do you believe that isolation and segregation is counterproductive to rehabilitation?
Are you ready to take a stand to protect the human rights of prisoners in state facilities in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia?
Interfaith Action for Human Rights works to change the culture, policy and practices that violate the human rights of prisoners held in correctional facilities.
Guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the wisdom of our respective faiths, IAHR advocates for more just and compassionate laws and policies.
To make a donation to IAHR, click here.
By Susan Hills Rose, IAHR Contributing Reporter
The serious consequences of extended segregated housing – both for the prisoner subjected to it and for the public safety of his or her future community – have been well documented. But some would say there is no alternative; prisoners misbehave, and they must be punished. What else can we do to maintain order in our prisons?
Three major approaches have evidence and experience behind them. Here’s what we can do instead:
1. Use a range of graduated sanctions.
Because of its devastating impact on mental health and social skills, segregation should never be the first option for responding to behavior issues. Lower levels of infractions that do not involve violence toward others can be dealt with through temporary, less severe sanctions. Here are some of the many alternatives to disciplinary segregation identified by the U.S. Department of Justice :
- Forfeit “good time,” which reduces sentence length
- Loss of privileges, such as visiting and phone calls
- Move to less desirable housing
- Loss of participation in a program or group activity
- Impound personal property, such as a CD player or musical instrument
- Require extra duty, or
- Delay parole date.
Does this mean correctional officers will be less safe? When Colorado reduced its use of extended solitary confinement, it found that prisoner-on-staff assaults actually declined .
2. Reward positive behavior.
Public safety-minded correctional systems are increasing incentives for positive behavior rather than spending their scarce resources responding to discipline problems. For example:
- Kevin Kempf, Director of Idaho’s Department of Corrections, has allowed prisoners who have gone 3 months with no disciplinary offenses to buy pizzas from a local partner .
- Kempf is also partnering with local school districts to set up “art in the yard” events where prisoners can display and sell their art to the community.
- In Ohio, some segregated housing units were converted to “limited privilege unit” that allowed more out-of-cell time and privileges. Prisoners can gain early release by participating in pro-social activities such as anger management and problem-solving programs (ASCA, 2016).
- Privileges such as time to work out, access to desirable food, job opportunities, and more desirable housing assignments can be offered to prisoners who have good records.
3. Reduce the conditions that make prisons less safe.
Many states are taking a hard look at conditions within their prisons that lead to hopelessness, anger, violence, and self-harm. Then they are developing innovative programs to change those conditions. If they are successful, prisoners will be more successful in finding jobs and rejoining their families when they re-enter communities. In the short term, prisons will be safer places for both correctional officers and prisoners.
Offer effective programs to help prisoners with mental illness
For example: Prisoners with mental illness, especially severe mental illness, often have difficulty complying with prison rules. They may also have a range of challenges in social interactions. Long periods in segregated housing can make even healthy persons develop mental problems; for people who already have them, they just get worse. What can be done?
- In South Carolina, the Department of Corrections is developing a program to screen and evaluate prisoners to identify those in need of mental health care. It is also developing a training program to help staff intervene appropriately when there is a crisis (ASCA, 2016).
- In Colorado, prisoners with Serious Mental Illness were moved from segregated confinement to residential treatment units where they are offered 10 hours of therapeutic interventions and 10 hours of recreational programming weekly (ASCA, 2016).
Teach ways to de-escalate conflict
Vera Institute of Justice also urges prisons to “use communication and de-escalation techniques to resolve conflict ." Both prisoners and correctional officers can learn techniques to dial-down conflict situations that can lead to threats and violence. In a striking example:
- In Colorado, prisoners in restrictive housing have access to “de-escalation rooms” that may offer soothing wall colors, dim lights, and a comfortable chair. People can listen to calming music, use exercise balls, or participate in art therapy (ASCA, 2016).
Improve conditions in restrictive housing
Prisons and jails can also decrease the likelihood of permanent harm to individuals’ mental health as a result of extended segregated confinement. For example:
- The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department in Massachusetts distributes preprogrammed MP3 players to people in restricted housing as a reward for positive behavior. The players have self-help programs, music, nature sounds, and audio books (Vera Institute, 2018).
- Prisons can give prisoners a date certain on which their confinement will end unless there is a serious infraction and keep their word.
- In Oregon, people in segregated housing can view nature videos in a “Blue Room” – an innovation that both staff and prisoners say has led to a “calmer atmosphere in the unit” and fewer disciplinary infractions (Vera Institute, 2018)