The Washington Post reported yesterday that four dozen inmates at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison have launched a hunger strike in protest of their long-term solitary confinement.
In a letter to Solitary Watch written before the hunger strike, one Red Onion inmate held in isolation reported that the prison was “absolutely primitive…they have me next to an inmate that throws poop on the tier, rubs it all over regularly…the pod has several like that…constant yelling, banging…” Another inmate at Red Onion wrote that the conditions of the isolation unit “would make you truly wonder what the hell is going on in the minds of people who run these institutions…”
Red Onion was the subject of a 1999 Human Rights Watch report, in which it was blasted for failing “to embrace basic tenets of sound correctional practice and laws protecting inmates from abusive, degrading or cruel treatment.”
The prison has received increasing scrutiny in recent months; of its over 500 inmates in solitary, many are known to have been diagnosed mentally ill. Red Onion inmates are isolated for an average of 2.7 years. The conditions at Red Onion State Prison prompted some legislators to ask for a federal investigation of the use of solitary confinement at the prison. The scrutiny has prompted reviews of policies, though the hunger strikers have demanded more sweeping reforms.
The inmates have issued ten demands. Among them is a demand for “an end to torture in the form of indefinite segregation through the implementation of a fair and transparent process whereby prisoners can earn the right to be released from segregation.”
According to Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Taylor,
“I am unable to confirm a hunger strike at Red Onion,” said spokesman Larry Traylor. “I am aware of a press conference this morning that they are beginning a hunger strike. Our response … is that Red Onion has always operated constitutionally and has protected the 8th Amendment rights of offenders, and it has been nationally accredited by the American Correctional Association.”
“The hunger strike to protest conditions at Red Onion State Prison, including prolonged solitary confinement, indicates a need for increased transparency of the Virginia Department of Correction’s recently proposed changes to solitary confinement policies.
Currently, nearly 500 inmates at Red Onion spend 23 hours a day in a cell by themselves, with limited access to a caged pen for solitary exercise. Some Virginia prisoners, including those with mental illnesses, have been kept in isolation for years.
Our faith traditions recognize the inherent dignity of every human being, a quality that should not disappear behind prison gates. Prolonged isolation violates individuals’ God-given dignity by destroying prisoners’ minds and the opportunity for genuine rehabilitation.
Many studies have documented the detrimental psychological effects of long-term segregation, such as hallucinations, illusions, perceptual distortions, and hyperresponsivity to external stimuli.
More often than not, prisoners held in segregation return to society as less functional human beings, and studies indicate that isolation increases prisoners’ risk of recidivism. Housing prisoners in solitary confinement also costs the Commonwealth significantly more than housing prisoners in general prison population.
In light of the high cost of solitary confinement and its diminishing returns, states around the country are reducing their use of segregation and finding that there are safe alternatives. Both Mississippi and Maine have drastically reduced the use of solitary confinement and as a result, have not only saved millions of taxpayer dollars, but actually experienced a decline in violent incidents within their prisons.
NRCAT applauds Virginia’s Department of Corrections for its internal plans to reform the use of isolation at Red Onion, including appointing a team of experts to examine each prisoner and design personalized case plans, and adding additional levels of review before inmates are placed in solitary confinement. However, we remain convinced that independent review using expert data analysis methodology is essential to successfully implement alternatives to solitary confinement. Publicly announcing such an independent review would also demonstrate the Department’s good faith to reform its isolation policies. We urge the Department to provide transparent reporting of its plans and progress.”