The Bulletin

House panel punts on bill to limit solitary confinement in prison

By: - February 24, 2022 11:12 am

The perimeter of Greensville Correctional Center, which is protected by multiple layers of fencing, razor wire and guard towers. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A House of Delegates subcommittee voted Thursday to scrap legislation passed by the Senate to strictly limit how long state prisons can hold people in solitary confinement.

Instead, the panel agreed to amended language that directs prison officials to study the issue.

Supporters of the legislation, who have been pushing to rein in the state’s use of solitary confinement for years, argued the practice had been studied enough, but called the amendments the best compromise they could hope for in the Republican-controlled House.

“I don’t want a study, but the alternative was that this bill was going to be defeated,” said Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, one of the chamber’s more outspoken advocates for prison reform. But he urged the Department of Corrections to take the study seriously.

“When the General Assembly asks for a work group to study a topic, we mean it,” he said. “We want DOC to know if they’re watching that we want you to take this study seriously.”

The Department of Corrections argued it no longer uses solitary confinement because procedures now call for all inmates to have at least four hours outside of their cells each day. Solitary confinement has traditionally been defined as being held in isolation for 22 hours a day.

Advocates and inmates, however, have argued the difference is semantic. Among other things, they note that out-of-cell recreation time is also isolated and typically consists of a prisoner being moved from their cell to a different caged area.

The Senate bill, proposed by Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, would have barred prisons from holding someone in confinement for longer than 15 days in any 60-day period. It would also require medical and mental health evaluations and meaningful programming and interaction during out of cell time.

The Department of Corrections estimated it would cost $4.8 million to meet the requirements set in the bill.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.