Virginia corrections officials, through their Step Down Programs at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge Prisons have implicitly recognized that long-term isolation is harmful and needs to be reduced. Prisoners, however – including some who have completed the Step Down Program – and their families have raised some disturbing issues that point to a need for a closer look. Their allegations include that even prisoners who complete the Step Down Program can find themselves repeatedly placed back in restrictive housing ("sometimes called segregation or solitary confinement) for indefinite periods ranging from 30 days to 6 months or more, following disciplinary charges that are sometimes fabricated or inflated.
Gay Gardner and Kimberly Jenkins Snodgrass have led IAHR’s work in exposing the human rights abuses at Red Onion, Wallens Ridge and other Virginia detention facilities. Here is a video in which they describe some of the abuses.
IAHR is working with other advocates to explore how, together, we can address these charges effectively. As a first step, the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement chaired by IAHR's then-secretary Gay Gardner wrote a reporting bill that was introduced during the 2019 Virginia legislative session by Delegate Patrick Hope.
This bill (HB 1642/SB1777), which requires the Department of Corrections (VADOC) to report certain data related to its use of isolated confinement each year, was passed by the Virginia General Assembly, albeit in a weaker form than initially proposed. Click here to read the text of a letter sent to Gov. Ralph Northam on behalf of the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement urging him to sign the bill into law but also pointing out flaws in the bill. Click here to read a newspaper article on HB 1642/SB1777. Governor Northam signed the bill into law in April 2019. The Coalition thanks all its partners and Delegate Hope for all their work on this issue during the 2019 legislative session.
In the 2021 legislative session, Senator Joseph Morrissey introduced SB1301 on behalf of the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement. The bill would place strict limits on the use of isolated confinement. In most cases, it would allow placement in isolation for an initial period of only 48 hours, subject to certain documentation requirements and medical and mental health evaluations. SB1301 passed the Senate but died in the House of Delegates' Appropriations Committee. The VADOC said the bill would increase its budget by many millions of dollars, which was inconsistent with data Senator Morrissey and the Coalition presented from other states. The legislature did not challenge the VADOC's cost estimate and failed to appropriate any funds to implement the bill
Meanwhile, the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement received a grant from the Jurisdiction-Based Fund of the Unlock the Box Campaign to support our efforts to end the abuse of solitary confinement in Virginia. We plan to use some of these funds to counter the VADOC's assertions that limiting the use of solitary will add tens of millions of dollars to their budget. We also plan to use this money to train volunteers to become more effective advocates prior to and during the legislative session.
The Coalition includes IAHR, the ACLU of Virginia, Social Action Linking Together (S.A.L.T.), and Virginia-CURE. Special thanks are due to Senator Morrissey and Delegate Joshua Cole for their leadership and support of SB1301.
Attack Dogs in Virginia State Prisons
Through the work of Gay Gardner, IAHR's Special Advisor for Virginia, IAHR has uncovered cases in which Virginia Correctional Authorities have sent attack dogs into prison blocks to break up fights. The dogs have attacked prisoners leaving them with serious injuries that required emergency medical care. IAHR is appalled that attack dogs are used in Virginia State Prisons. The use of attack dogs is in accord with VADOC's regulations and policy guidelines.
Eventually IAHR found attorneys who were willing to contact some of the victims of these attacks and represent them in a lawsuit for damages. Attorneys from Rights Behind Bars which works alongside incarcerated people to challenge the cruel and inhumane conditions of their confinement agreed to take on two cases. Additionally, they are being joined by pro bono attorneys and staff from Arnold and Porter, a leading international law firm.
The attack dog issue has attracted the interest of the press. Read Theresa Vargas' article on the issue that appeared in the Washington Post. Moreover, several Virginia legislators have expressed grave concern about this issue and are considering introducing legislation that would create an independent body that would oversee the Virginia Department of Corrections.
This excerpt from a letter we received from an inmate at Wallens Ridge State Prison, shows how much it means to some prisoners simply to know that someone on the outside cares:
"I am so very thankful for the concern you have shown for me and my well being. . . I am thankful for you being more than just a bunch of "talk”. . . I am thankful for everything that you and Interfaith Action for Human Rights are all about. . . It's not often that I've witnessed anything beyond rhetoric from those in society that are in positions to make change in the way that prisoners are often mistreated. I've heard about and read about such people and organizations, but never have I had real life experience with such people or organizations. I know that I'm just a drop in the bucket, life is filled with so many more problematic issues far, far, far greater than mine...Yet someone took time out of their day to say to me (through words and actions), "I hear you, and you matter." I'll be forever grateful."