The Virginia Department of Corrections is one of five prison systems selected to participate in an initiative aimed at safely reducing the use of inmate solitary confinement, also known as segregation.Solitary confinement has been used widely in prisons and jails across the country to protect the inmate in question or other inmates from a dangerous prisoner.
However, it long has been known there can be serious mental and physical effects on people held in solitary for extended periods. It also is a more expensive way to imprison people.
The Virginia Department of Corrections says it has been moving toward curbing the use of solitary confinement.
The U.S. Department of Justice, in a 2016 report on restrictive prison housing across the country, favorably cited Virginia’s effort to reduce inmate segregation at Red Onion State Prison through its “administrative segregation step-down program.”
In 2011, 511 inmates at Red Onion State Prison in Wise were held in maximum-security administrative segregation. As result of the step-down program, as of last March only 84 inmates remained in segregation there. The departments says it now is examining ways to apply the Red Onion results systemwide.
The 21-month initiative on segregation begins in early 2017 and is supported by a $2.2 million grant awarded to Vera by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. The states will provide a match up to $50,000.
According to the institute, it will work with Virginia and the other selected states to assess how they use solitary confinement, develop ways to safely reduce that use, and help implement changes.
Virginia has more than 30,000 inmates in its prisons. Red Onion State Prison, which held 800 to 900 inmates last month, opened in 1998 as the state’s first so-called “supermax” prison designed for the most dangerous of Virginia’s criminals.
Under the step-down program, prisoners who once were kept in cells for 23 to 24 hours a day are given a chance to work their way out and join small groups of other prisoners.
Performance expectations rise at each level of the program, and additional privileges can be earned.
All but 84 of the original 511 offenders in segregation at Red Onion have completed the step-down program and transitioned to general population housing. The Department of Corrections said that just 15 of those who completed the program have returned to segregation.
The department said that at Red Onion, from 2011 through 2015, incident reports were down 65 percent; inmate grievances fell 71 percent; and informal complaints were reduced by 76 percent.
A school opened for the first time at Red Onion in 2013. By last year, 260 inmates were enrolled.