Red Onion State Prison in Wise County. Va. (DAVID CRIGGER/BRISTOL…)
RICHMOND — At Red Onion State Prison, built on a mountaintop in a remote pocket of southwest Virginia, more than two-thirds of the inmates live in solitary confinement.
In a state where about 1 in 20 prisoners are held in solitary, Red Onion, a so-called supermax prison, isolates more inmates than any other facility, keeping more than 500 of its nearly 750 charges alone for 23 hours a day in cells the size of a doctor’s exam room.
Virginia, one of 44 states that use solitary confinement, has 1,800 people in isolation, a sizable share of the estimated 25,000 people in solitary in the nation’s state and federal prisons.
As more becomes known about the effects of isolation — on inmate health, public safety and prison budgets — some states have begun to reconsider the practice, among them Texas, which, like Virginia, is known as a law-and-order state.
Mississippi, New York and Texas have begun to scale back the use of solitary confinement under pressure from prison watchdogs.
Now critics have set their sights on Virginia, where lawyers and inmates say some of the state’s 40,000 prisoners, including some with mental-health issues, have been kept in isolation for years, in one case for 14 years.
The Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents 12 inmates in isolation in Virginia, has requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which recently launched a probe into a 1,550-bed Pennsylvania prison where inmates complain of long periods of isolation and a lack of mental-health treatment.
Virginia officials were reluctant to answer questions from The Washington Post about the practice of solitary confinement. In some instances, they provided contradictory information to The Post and legislators; at other times, they declined to talk about the use of solitary confinement.
“I’m very concerned about taking away people’s socialization,’’ said Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who will be sworn in as a state senator this week. “If they haven’t interacted with people for long periods of time, it’s not going to make them behave better.”
Ebbin is one in a group of legislators who have been visiting prisons, including Red Onion, to examine how their most violent inmates are treated. Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who is leading the effort, said he will urge the General Assembly to study ways to limit the use of solitary confinement and offer more treatment before inmates are released.
A prison agency spokesman said that inmates are given breaks from “segregation” — the term the state uses to refer to solitary confinement — every 30 days or that their cases are reviewed regularly. But inmates and attorneys say prisons sometimes skip the review.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), a former state attorney general who has pumped more money and staff into helping prisoners reenter society, said in a recent interview that he was unaware of the complaints.
“People behind bars have civil rights,’’ McDonnell said. “At the same time, we have a duty to promote public safety. If people show, even in prison, that they can’t get along with other prisoners, then they are treated accordingly.”
Malcolm Springs, 24, who is serving time in Red Onion for rape and abduction, said his mental-health problems have grown worse since he was put in isolation for assaulting an officer five years ago.
He has tried to kill himself multiple times and has been moved back and forth from Marion Correctional Center, a prison psychiatric hospital, where he was housed in segregation, according to prison officials and his attorney.
“In segregation, all I could do is think about my life, what I have been through, how people treat me here,’’ Springs said in a phone interview. “If I was in population, maybe I wouldn’t be as depressed.’’
Abigail Turner, litigation director at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, said eight of the organization’s 12 clients in isolation in Virginia prisons have serious mental illnesses for which they receive inadequate treatment.
Harold W. Clarke, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, declined to comment. Agency spokesman Larry Traylor said inmates are kept in isolation for disciplinary problems — such as assaulting another inmate, starting a riot or having weapons or drugs — or for administrative reasons to protect them.
Traylor acknowledged that an inmate in certain types of solitary could “potentially be assigned there for years according to their risk assessment.’’ But he said Red Onion operates in accordance with national standards and is accredited by the American Correctional Association.