A federal class action lawsuit claims that a dozen inmates at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons have suffered psychological and physical harm from extended periods of isolation in solitary confinement.
The Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and a law firm filed suit May 6 at the U.S. district court in Richmond. Defendants include the two prison wardens, the Virginia Department of Corrections and nine state-level corrections officials.
The plaintiffs “have remained in long-term solitary confinement for between two and 23 years,” the suit claims, adding that they “have suffered severe physical and mental health damage, including weight loss, auditory and visual hallucinations, emotional distress, Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder, severe sensory deprivation, and suicidal thoughts.”
The suit states that solitary confinement is also referred to as “segregation,” “administrative segregation,” “restrictive housing” and “isolation.” It includes placing an inmate alone in a locked room or cell for “the vast majority” of the day and “near total deprivation of contact with other humans.”
The suit alleges that current administrative segregation practices at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge amount to “re-implementing the arbitrary and indefinite system of solitary confinement” that was discontinued more than 30 years ago at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center.
Following a class action lawsuit in the early 1980s, the state board of corrections in 1984 issued a comprehensive report documenting that its solitary confinement system at Mecklenburg was a failure which “ignored correctional and mental health science and the recommendations of independent psychologists, and instead opted for a program devised by a VDOC ‘internal task force,’” according to the current suit.
The Mecklenburg prison was later closed and demolished. It was replaced by two larger “supermax” maximum-security facilities, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, “that would be designed to support long-term solitary confinement,” according to the suit. The facilities opened in 1998 and 1999.
The suit claims that the corrections department revived the failed Mecklenburg system. In 2012, it states, VDOC replaced that system with a “step-down program” that plaintiffs describe as “a system of vague standards, contradictory goals, and malleable jargon used to conceal what is nothing more than an indefinite or permanent solitary confinement regime.”
Further, the suit alleges that the program’s true purpose “is to allow VDOC to fill underused prison space to justify the significant cost of keeping Red Onion and Wallens Ridge open.”
The corrections department has said that inmates are placed in administrative segregation for being disruptive, assaulting other inmates or corrections officers or similar infractions. However, the suit claims inmates are often placed in solitary confinement for relatively minor offenses as well.
The state corrections department has not responded to a request for comments.