Prolonged solitary confinement is torture. There is a strong consensus among mental health professionals, supported by scientific evidence, that isolation exceeding 15 consecutive days can permanently alter brain chemistry and cause lasting damage to mental health. It often creates illness in those who were healthy before their incarceration and exacerbates illness in those who were already ill. That is why the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners include a limit on isolated confinement of 15 consecutive days. Most people in prison will return to society one day; they should not emerge from prison worse than when they went in because of the harmful impact of solitary confinement.

There is growing recognition that the use of solitary confinement needs to be reduced to an absolute minimum. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the last 6 years, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, and Texas have passed legislation that either drastically restricts solitary confinement in state prisons or requires a comprehensive study of potential reforms.

Although Virginia has reduced the number of men in long-term solitary confinement at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge State Prisons through its Step-Down Program, serious problems remain unsolved by that program:

  • Solitary confinement is not being used strictly as a last resort.
  • Too many people with mental illness and other disabling conditions remain in solitary confinement even though that is virtually certain to exacerbate their underlying conditions.
  • Prisoners are not given written reasons when they are placed in solitary confinement and have no certainty about how long it will last.
  • Prisoners do not have unimpeded access to an effective mechanism for challenging their placement or retention in solitary confinement.
  • There is very little communication with prisoners about why they fail to advance or experience setbacks within the Step-Down Program, or why it takes so long to complete the program.
  • Even though VDOC operating procedures limit “disciplinary segregation” to 30 days, prisoners are sometimes kept in solitary confinement for much longer periods after receiving disciplinary charges.

Legislation is needed in Virginia to —

  • Ban solitary confinement for individuals who are (1) mentally ill or have mental or physical disabilities, (2) age 21 or younger, (3) age 55 or older, (4) pregnant, or (5) LGBTI or are perceived to be LGBTI;
  • Limit periods of solitary confinement for all other prisoners to 15 consecutive days, or no more than 20 days in any 60-day period;
  • Require a written justification for each placement in solitary confinement and provide for the right of the individual to appear, speak, and be represented at a hearing before an independent hearing officer no later than 72 hours after being placed in solitary confinement;
  • Create an independent mechanism outside of the Department of Corrections for annual auditing of the Department’s compliance with the provisions of the bill


    * For purposes of this paper, “solitary confinement” means confinement of an individual to his cell for 22-24 hours a day.  Virginia Dept of Corrections states that it does not use solitary confinement.  It refers to confinement of a prisoner to his cell for 22-24 hours a day as “segregation” or “restrictive housing.