ACLU sues to end solitary confinement at two Virginia state prisons

Posted at 7:26 PM, May 06, 2019

RICHMOND, Va. -- A lawsuit filed Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia claims that solitary confinement practices at two Virginia prisons have kept prisoners isolated for up to 24 years, causing them to suffer from hallucinations, PTSD, weight loss, severe sensory deprivation, and suicidal thoughts.

Filed by the ACLU of Virginia in collaboration with law firm White & Case LLP, the federal class-action suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on behalf of 12 plaintiffs who have suffered "in torturous conditions, some for decades," at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons, two maximum-security state prisons in the far South-West corner of the state.

Defined as the practice of keeping someone alone in an enclosed space for 22 hours or more per day with little or no stimulation or human contact, solitary confinement is known to cause mental and physical deterioration within 10 days.

In addition to creating a myriad of severe mental health problems in prisoners, the lawsuit argues that, based on the history of Virginia's use of long-term solitary confinement, the real purpose of the program is to fill underused prison space to justify keeping the prisons open.

The complaint examines VDOC's use of the 'Step-Down Program,' described as a 'complex, arbitrary system' purportedly intended to help people work their way out of solitary in the context of a parallel 1984 lawsuit filed by prisoners being held in solitary confinement in then maximum-security prison Mecklenburg Correctional Center.

At the time, VDOC was using a 'Phase Program' whereby prisoners could advance through 'phases' of solitary confinement to eventually return to the general population. In the lawsuit, the prisoners alleged that the program violated their constitutional rights to due process and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

A report issued by the Virginia Board of Corrections then admitted that the solitary confinement system at Mecklenburg Correctional Center ignored correctional and mental health science, incentivized abuse practices by prison employees, and was used as part of a scheme to fill empty prison space in Mecklenburg.

Under a settlement, VDOC agreed to discontinue the Phase Program and said they did not intend to reinstate any similar program in the future.

But when Mecklenburg closed, VDOC launched plans to replace it with Red Onion and Wallins Ridge, two 'supermax' programs that would be designed to support long-term solitary confinement.  The lawsuit argues that the Step-Down program is a violation of VDOC's agreement to not reinstate the type of conditions seen at Mecklenburg.

Plaintiff Gary Wall says that despite completing the Step-Down program twice, he still remains in solitary confinement.

"I am being put in this program arbitrarily and then am going through it arbitrarily; there's not a set criteria for me to get out. I feel like I did everything right.  I completed the Step-Down program, I got certificates two times, I’ve done everything right, and they still won’t let me out," Wall said. "Every time I get to a certain point, I get a fabricated charge and that is their justification to start the program all over again. I’m deteriorating in here.  My mental health and physical health is deteriorating.”

According to the ACLU, the lawsuit seeks to the Step-Down Program, cease the practice of long-term solitary confinement at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, and appoint a special master to bring VDOC’s prisons into compliance. It also seeks to award the plaintiffs compensatory damages for these violations.

The ACLU of Virginia is also suing VDOC on behalf of Nicolas Reyes, a Salvadoran national who has been held in solitary for 13 years atRed Onion because he cannot complete the Step-Down Program. The program's workbooks are available only in English, but Reyes only speaks Spanish and cannot read or write in any language.

CBS 6 reached out to VDOC for a statement on the lawsuit.

This is a developing story