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Virginia bill again seeks to limit solitary confinement

A bill that seeks to limit the use of isolated—or solitary— confinement in Virginia’s correctional facilities now faces the Republican-controlled House, who voted down a similar measure earlier in the session.

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By Tarazha Jenkins

A bill that seeks to limit the use of isolated—or solitary— confinement in Virginia’s correctional facilities now faces the Republican-controlled House, who voted down a similar measure earlier in the session.

Sen. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond, proposed Senate Bill 108, which passed out of the Senate along partisan lines. Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester, serves as co-patron but abstained from voting on the Senate floor.

“There is unanimous support in the faith community on this issue,” said Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which advocates for racial, economic and social justice issues.

Solitary confinement is defined in Virginia as the isolation of an incarcerated person to a cell for at least 22 hours per day. Holding someone longer than 15 days in solitary confinement is considered torture by the United Nations, which prohibits the practice.

Virginia prisoners can be placed in solitary confinement for a long time, Morrissey said last year. 

No inmate could be held in confinement longer than 15 consecutive days during a 60-day period if the bill passes. When an inmate is held for medical circumstances, a medical practitioner must approve the move. Correctional facility administrators must document why the inmate is placed in confinement. They must also file medical and mental health evaluations and set a plan of action for the inmate outside of confinement.

The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy wants to limit what it said is the Virginia Department of Corrections’ excessive use of solitary confinement.

DOC stated in a press release last year that it no longer holds people in solitary confinement, often called restrictive housing, because inmates are let out of the cell for at least four hours a day. DOC now refers to solitary confinement as restorative housing.

DOC reported placing more than 5,000 inmates in restorative housing from mid-2020 to mid-2021. The median length of stay was about 12 days, according to the report.

Natasha White, coordinator for the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement, said the practice is horrible and there is no way of knowing how long someone is in confinement.

White served four consecutive years in solitary confinement at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, she said.

“They claim it was for preventive measures, but four years, that is a very long time – to the point where you don’t know what day it is unless you ask somebody,” White said. “You know what day of the week it is by the days you take a bath.”

Her husband spent 12 years in confinement on gang-related offenses. When he came home he was “really, really damaged.”

“There are literally people who self mutilate, men who have chewed their fingertips off just so they can get to a doctor so you have to take them out of that box,” White said.

White now dedicates her time toward prison reform and ending solitary confinement in Virginia and federal correctional facilities. White advocated for a similar bill in New York that passed in March 2021.

DOC’s adaptation of the restorative housing term doesn’t change the situation, White said.

“It’s verbal gymnastics,” White said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said there is no oversight for the department, and no way to verify if the practice has ended. Numerous people contacted the ACLU of Virginia with complaints of continued use of solitary confinement, the organization reported.

The incarcerated have the opportunity to join the general population on completion of the Step Down program, DOC stated. The program allows inmates at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons to participate in a journaling series and other therapeutic activities and programs.

Not every inmate has the chance to complete the Step Down program, according to a statement from Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria.

Nicholas Reyes, an El Salvador native, was placed in the Step Down program but he could not fill out the required journals because he does not understand English. He was later diagnosed with a serious mental illness after spending 12 years in isolation at Red Onion State Prison. Virginia paid Reyes $115,000 in a 2018 lawsuit settlement, according to the Washington Post.

“If you’re not mentally ill when you enter solitary confinement you certainly could be when you leave,” Ebbin said, just before the Senate voted on the measure.

Bobo spoke with those who were previously held in confinement. She said it can cause or exacerbate mental health issues.

Morrissey proposed a similar bill in the 2021 session. SB 1301 moved through the Senate floor, but failed to pass the House after DOC estimated it would cost $23 million to implement.

Patrons and partners have worked with DOC over the past year to lower the fiscal cost. In the past fiscal year Virginia spent over $26 million in secure confinement expenses.

DOC is estimated to need $4.8 million in general fund support in fiscal year 2024, and “an indeterminate amount of funding for correctional officers and transport buses” to implement the bill, according to the bill’s impact statement. An estimated $3.3 million in general fund support would be needed for the Department of Juvenile Justice in fiscal year 2024.

Bobo says this year the bill’s fiscal note is more “modest.” She believes the bill will pass the Republican-controlled House.

The bill has been referred to the House Public Safety subcommittee.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

Community

2nd Street Festival Cancelled Grand Master Flash Performing at Hippodrome

Although the festival is cancelled there is a least one show that will go on. Curse you Hurrican Ian, curse you.

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Sad news from Venture Richmond

Venture Richmond Events has made the incredibly difficult decision to cancel the 2nd Street Festival, scheduled for this weekend, Oct. 1-2.

Like many, the Venture Richmond Events team has watched Ian for days, hoping that it would not be the massive and potentially deadly weather event that it clearly is. While we are extremely lucky to be a few states away from the serious issues Florida is facing, we also know that this weekend promises uncertain amounts of rainfall and potential wind gusts for our area. After consulting meteorologists, vendors, contractors, security, and other event planners, and after considering the Governor’s State of Emergency, we concluded to the best of our ability, that the event, if held, would not be safe. We must put the safety of our patrons, artists, vendors, contractors, and staff foremost.

There is good news though – a portion of the party will go on indoors! Our festival headliner, Grandmaster Flash will perform indoors at The Hippodrome theater on 2nd Street in Jackson Ward on Saturday evening. This performance will be FREE and open to the public, but capacity is limited and based upon availability.

2nd Street Festival at The Hipp

A special performance by Grandmaster Flash with an opening band

Saturday, October 1, 5:00 – 8:00 p.m. Hippodrome Theater, 528 N. 2nd Street

Doors 4:30 p.m.

Free and open to the public with limited capacity and based upon availability.

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Community

Virginia Pridefest Festing on Brown’s Island

The Truist Main Stage headlining acts include The Queen of Bounce, Big Freedia, Leikeli 47 and Rosé from RuPaul’s Drag Race.

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Pridefest weekend features three amazing events, beginning with Pride After Dark: Animal -the official pre-Pride Party. Get your tickets for Pride After Dark at vapride.org Pridefest is Saturday on Browns Island featuring Leikeli47, Big Freedia, and numerous local performers and is free and open to all. The weekend of festivities will end at Bingo Beer Co. With Snatch’d: a Rainbow Celebration – no ticket required.

Virginia Pride is a program of Diversity Richmond, the LGBTQ Community Center for Central Virginia. A committee of volunteers oversees VA Pride’s efforts to make the Richmond Region a better place for LGBTQ people to live, work and visit.

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Community

Persons of interest in Jewelry Theft

Friday, September 16, at approximately 1:30 p.m. two individuals entered an open business and stole several pieces of jewelry before leaving the store in an unknown direction.

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From RPD

Richmond Police detectives are asking for the public’s assistance in identifying the individuals in these photos who are persons of interest in a theft that occurred last Friday in the 1300 block of East Cary Street.

Friday, September 16, at approximately 1:30 p.m. two individuals entered an open business and stole several pieces of jewelry before leaving the store in an unknown direction.

The female suspect is approximately 5 foot 7 inches tall, weighing approximately 180 pounds, last seen wearing a black shirt, white pants, black sandals, carrying a black shoulder bag.

The male suspect is approximately 5 foot 7 inches tall, weighing approximately 160 pounds, last seen wearing a white t-shirt, blue jeans, brown shoes, black baseball style hat.

Anyone with information about the identity of these individuals are asked to call First Precinct Detective T. Wilson at (804) 646-0672 or Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000. The P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app for smartphones also may be used. All Crime Stoppers reporting methods are anonymous.

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We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.

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