Lawsuit asks to end solitary confinement in Virginia prisons

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to end the use of solitary confinement at two of the state's toughest prisons

RICHMOND, Va. -- The use of long-term solitary confinement at two of Virginia's toughest prisons has caused "severe physical and mental health damage" to inmates, including hallucinations, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts, the American Civil Liberties Union alleges in a federal lawsuit filed Monday.

The lawsuit asks the court to put an end to extended solitary confinement at the Red Onion and Wallens Ridge prisons, both super maximum-security correctional institutions in the southwest corner of Virginia.

A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations made in the lawsuit.

The DOC has repeatedly denied using solitary confinement and said it uses "restrictive housing" and a "step-down program" that allows inmates to earn their way back into the general population.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU says it uses a definition of solitary confinement from the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Department of Justice, which entails the removal of an inmate from the general population and placement alone in a locked cell for the vast majority of the day, with near-total deprivation of human contact.

DOC spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said last year that inmates in long-term restrictive housing at Red Onion have access to reading materials and telephones, out-of-cell recreation and classes. She said seriously mentally ill offenders can spend no more than 30 days in restrictive housing.

"The Virginia Department of Corrections serves as a national model for the limited use of restrictive housing," Kinney said in a statement.

Prison officials also said then that the step-down program had reduced the number of inmates in long-term restrictive housing from more than 500 to fewer than 100.

The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 named inmates and others who are, have been, or will be placed in solitary confinement at Red Onion or Wallens Ridge.

The suit seeks an end to long-term solitary confinement, the abolishment of the step-down program, and compensatory damages for inmates' emotional pain and suffering.