Attendees at a rally for prison reform Saturday on Capitol Square called for better conditions for Virginia inmates, including the elimination of solitary confinement. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia prison officials say they’re on the leading edge of corrections reform for “operating without the use of solitary confinement.”

But Derek Cornelison, a 34-year-old inmate at Red Onion, one of the state’s two supermax prisons in Wise County, says he and dozens of other prisoners have remained isolated in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day for years — a level of confinement increasingly viewed as cruel, inhumane and a violation of international human rights standards. (Update: The Virginia Department of Corrections now disputes this account, see below)

“These people are very good with playing with words,” he says in a letter. “We (prisoners) call a thing what it is … sometimes ‘solitary confinement’ … sometimes ‘segregation’ … but most times we just call it the plain old ‘hole,’ because that’s what it feels like, like we’ve just been thrown into the bottom of a hole to be buried and forgotten about.”

He says his only time outside his cell comes a few times a week for about an hour at a time, when he’s shackled and led out to either be chained to a table to prepare utensils for meals, his work assignment, or to a small recreation cage, where he says he can look up through a mesh grill and see the sky.

“It’s all very Hannibal Lecter-ish,” he says.

Advocates and lawmakers back up Cornelison’s account. More than 800 Virginia inmates were held in some form of solitary confinement, according to a December report by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit national research agency that proposed a variety of alternatives to long-term solitary confinement. The figure represents about 3 percent of the state’s prison population.

In its own report, the ACLU of Virginia concluded in May that “solitary confinement remains overused in Virginia and largely is still hidden from the public’s watchful eyes.”

Defining ‘solitary confinement’

The Department of Corrections’ claim that it eliminated the use of solitary confinement rests on how it defines the term.

“There is no solitary confinement because while offenders in long-term restrictive housing (the most restrictive housing possible in our facilities) are segregated from the general inmate population for their safety and/or the safety of others, they still interact with counselors, security staff, medical staff and others and have access to books, music, phone calls, etc.,” says department spokeswoman Lisa Kinney.

She said only 62 people are currently being held on a long-term basis in those conditions, down from 511 in 2015.

She attributes that drop to reforms introduced in 2011 that created a “step-down” program to offer inmates a path out of solitary confinement and institute regular internal reviews over its use. The program is primarily based on good behavior, journaling and classes.

“Virginia has made huge strides,” she said.

Lawmakers and advocates have applauded the reforms instituted so far, but they’re skeptical that they go as far as the department claims and argue the distinction officials make between solitary confinement and restrictive housing is meaningless.

“Whatever you want to call it, it’s not somewhere that most people should be and there’s a question whether anyone should be there,” said state Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria.

Lawmakers seek additional oversight

Ebbin is among a group of Democratic lawmakers pursuing legislation in the General Assembly that would require the Department of Corrections to report detailed data on use of solitary confinement.

“Data the DOC does provide is extremely limited and does not include reasons why people were placed in solitary, how long they’re being held or whether they’re members of vulnerable populations,” says Bill Farrar, communications director of the ACLU of Virginia, which is advocating for the legislation.

The ACLU notes that many of the claims made by corrections officials are disproved by a lawsuit they filed in September on behalf of a mentally ill man they allege has been held in solitary confinement in Virginia for more than 12 years. (The Department of Corrections denies the allegations.)

Likewise, Interfaith Action for Human Rights, an advocacy group, presented accounts from more than a dozen other Virginia inmates they say are unduly suffering in solitary confinement, many also diagnosed with mental illness. “Although we can’t independently confirm their accounts, there are enough stories that have similar elements to warrant more attention and better data than we’ve been able to secure,” said board member Gay Gardner.

The Department of Corrections has not taken a position for or against the proposed legislation, but Kinney accused its backers of “trying to score easy political points and advocacy groups trying to fundraise off this issue.”

The December report by the Vera Institute, which was conducted in cooperation with state corrections officials, recommended a range of less-restrictive alternatives to indefinite solitary confinement for prisoners considered too dangerous to be released into a prison’s general population. Officials said they would continue to explore those suggestions.

Cornelison, who was convicted of armed robbery in Stafford County in 2006, says the department’s reforms so far might look good on paper, but in practice he says administrative reviews are rote and arbitrary.

He says he was placed in solitary confinement in 2015 after assaulting and seriously injuring an inmate he says threatened to harm his family. Asked about his account, prison officials initially said they don’t comment or release records regarding individual inmates.

“No, I haven’t been given any indication of when I’ll be let out of solitary confinement, or even if I’ll ever be let out of solitary confinement,” he says. “The way it goes, when the prison administration decides that I’ve sat in solitary confinement for long enough, that’s when they’ll let me out of it, if they let me out of it. The decision to release me from solitary confinement could come next month, next year, or never.”

UPDATE: Asked about Cornelison’s claims, the Department of Corrections initially said it does not comment or release records regarding individual inmates. On Thursday, three days after this story was published, Kinney, the spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, sent the Mercury this statement: 

Offender Cornelison was transferred from Sussex I State Prison to Red Onion State Prison in 2016 due to an incident in which he apparently tried to kill another offender, stabbing him approximately 20 times. Offender Cornelison is currently afforded the opportunity to participate in several out of cell activities, including outside recreation, programs and job assignments totaling approximately 32 hours a week.

It is simply not true that this offender has to stay in his cell 22-24 hours a day, as stated in your article.