Special Report: Imprisoned in Isolation


WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — In a recent study, The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia asks Governor Ralph  Northam to sharply limit the use of solitary confinement in state prisons.

The ACLU report deems the practice is ‘overused’ in Virginia. The ACLU said reforms put in place by the state since 2011 are a “step forward” in reducing its use but don’t go far enough.

10 On Your Side looked into what is working and what is not when it comes to solitary confinement or isolation within Virginia prisons and jails.

10 On Your Side also spoke with former inmate, Angela Antoine, who says she was placed in solitary confinement for 14 days and claims she did not know why. She also says her family didn’t know she was there for her 4-and-a-half-month prison stay. Antoine is a convicted felon who landed back in jail for petty larceny. 

“You have a hard metal bed, a toilet and a sink that is combined together that’s at the bed. That’s it,” Antoine said of her time in solitary confinement at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.

“For a person to be in that setting for a long period of time it does begin to play on your mental health status, it does begin to make you insane, because you have no contact with anyone.”

10 On Your Side reached out to the Hampton Roads Regional jail for comment. 

Jail spokeswoman Zakkiyya Anderson said that inmates can be placed in the HRRJ’s single-cell restrictive housing for several reasons, including disciplinary and administrative restriction or protective custody.

Anderson said that in the last year, about 1,230 inmates have been placed in the HRRJ’s restrictive housing unit, with an average stay of about 25 days.

It’s stories like this that had the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia looking into solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. The report is titled: Silent Injustice: Solitary Confinement in Virginia. 

Bill Farrar is the Director of Strategic Communications for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.   

“We tried to look at every aspect of the practice of solitary confinement, which we define as putting someone in a cage basically for 22 to 24 hours a day,” Farrar said. 

The ACLU is asking that no one be kept in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days. 

“What we know from our research is that people are held in solitary confinement in Virginia state prisons on average for 2.7 years and while this report did focus exclusively on state prisons, we also know that the same thing happens in local and regional jails,” Farrar said. 

In a letter, the ACLU asked Governor Ralph Northam to sign an executive order banning solitary confinement for vulnerable populations which they define as mental illness and/or physical disabilities, juveniles, LGBTQ individuals and pregnant mothers. 

The ACLU report goes onto say solitary confinement causes and exacerbates mental illness and violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 

10 On Your Side reached out the Virginia  Department of Corrections regarding the report. They said that the DOC uses restrictive housing not as a punishment, but as a way to keep correctional institutions safer.

“Restrictive housing is not used as a form of punishment,” according to the DOC. “Offenders are placed in a restrictive housing unit (RHU) only when their presence in the general population poses an unacceptable risk to the offender, other offenders, institutional staff, or the safe and secure operation of the institution.”

While in restrictive housing, inmates have access to the library, counseling and the commissary. They can partake in recreation, read books and listen to the radio. A program launched in 2011 also allows inmates in restrictive housing to work their way out and get increased privileges, according to the DOC.

The DOC added that, “long-term restrictive housing is used only in rare and exceptional cases.”

“They play semantics,” said Farrar.  “They call it other things, segregation, isolation whatever you want to call it but it’s torture, it is solitary confinement. The administration of solitary confinement has nothing to do with justice.”

10 On Your Side looked even deeper and set up a tour at the Virginia Beach Jail. 

“If you are a problematic individual you will go in one of two things,” said Virginia Beach Undersheriff Brian Struzzieri.

The first “thing” he is talking about is called the security housing unit, or the SHU. Sheriff Ken Stolle started the unit in 2010 and jail officials say since then they’ve seen a 16 percent decrease in assaults happening in the jail because of it.

“The SHU is an important tool to correct predatory behavior and remove predatory individuals from general population for the protection of the inmates and the deputies. Prisons, by comparison, only house one security level of inmate,” said Virginia Beach Correctional Center spokeswoman Kathy Hieatt.

It’s important to note, this jail is not part of the ACLU report, but jail officials says the system here is working. The jail says it does its best not to house inmates alone.

“There’s never individuals that are solitary confined where they don’t have interactions or can’t speak with other inmates, where they don’t have interaction with our staff. In fact, they are going to see our staff at least twice an hour, every single day, 24 hours a day,” said Undersheriff Struzzieri. 

Each cell has two beds. Even those who are suicidal are placed with another person.

“Their behavior puts them in there,” said  Undersheriff Struzzieri. 

According to jail policy, an inmate can end up here if he is a threat to themselves, or others, presents disruptive behavior or determined to be an escape risk. Inmates may only be placed on administrative segregation by a Classification Supervisor, Watch Commander or higher authority. Inmates are allowed to read, receive mail, no recreation, fewer family visits. 

Holding inmates accountable, they say. 

“Our philosophy is really simple, we are going to put you in here and assimilate you back into the general population based on your behavior,”  said Undersheriff Struzzieri.

Hieatt said that all inmates receive due process for institutional violations and cannot be placed in the SHU indefinitely or at the discretion of a single deputy. Inmates are placed in the SHU by a disciplinary board that also determines  how long they should be in disciplinary housing.

Inmates are also able to get out of the SHU early if they behave well, and their mental health is taken into consideration before a person is placed in the SHU, Hieatt said.

“Everything we focus on is a group environment, because you have to interact with inmates and eventually back into the general population of society itself. Isolation, I can’t speak about, because it’s completely contrary to what the philosophies are here at the Virginia Beach sheriff’s office,”  Struzzieri said.

The VBCC is jail that leads the state in re-entry. According to jail statistics there are: 

  • 1,540 active inmates
  • 1,387 inmates housed in the Correctional Center (the difference is because of our Weekender Program inmates, Electronic Home Monitoring inmates, etc.)
  • 472 inmates with a chronic medical condition
  • 404 inmates on mental health medication
  • 1 inmate on suicide watch
  • 97 gang members

Angela is an inmate introduced back into society after serving her time at the HRRJ. A convicted felon, she’s now working with the ACLU – she says to be a voice for others who might not have one. 

“For a person to endure things while I endured the whole four months that  no one should be mistreated regardless of what the crime might be,” said Antoine. 

According to the ACLU report –  it is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 prisoners are held in some type of solitary confinement. 

Across Virginia, over 800 prisoners are in solitary confinement, according to the ACLU.

“In 2011 there were 511 offenders in long-term restrictive housing,” according to the DOC. “Today, that number is at 84, housed in Red Onion State Prison.”

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