Home ‘Unconscionable’ solitary confinement practices in Virginia will see day in court

‘Unconscionable’ solitary confinement practices in Virginia will see day in court

Crystal Graham
prison jail
(© methaphum – stock.adobe.com)

A federal judge in the Western District of Virginia certified a class action lawsuit yesterday allowing the hundreds of people who have been held in solitary confinement in Virginia since 2012 to join the ACLU of Virginia’s suit against the Virginia Department of Corrections.

“This order is good news for the hundreds of people whose constitutional rights VADOC has violated over the last decade by holding them in prolonged solitary confinement,” said ACLU-VA Senior Supervising Attorney Vishal Agraharkar. “There’s evidence that VADOC has been aware of the suffering and harm its solitary confinement practices are inflicting, yet it has continued the program anyway. That’s unconscionable.”

International standards known as the Mandela Rules designate solitary confinement longer than 15 days as torture. But the original 11 plaintiffs named in the suit filed in May of 2019 had each spent between two and 24 years in solitary confinement.

Plaintiffs in Thorpe v. Clarke et al. report grueling conditions that include regular body cavity inspections and spending the vast majority of each day in an eight-by-10 foot cell with only limited interaction with prison staff. The little time they get out is often spent alone in a small outdoor cage.

They have reported trouble sleeping and concentrating; stress-related weight loss; depression and anxiety; and suicidal ideation as a result of their prolonged solitary confinement.

“We believe the class action lawsuit will prove that VADOC has acted unconstitutionally by holding people for so long in solitary confinement,” said Covington & Burling’s Jared Frisch. “VADOC’s policies and practices are inhumane and can cause irreparable harm while doing nothing to foster rehabilitation.”

VADOC’s “Step-Down Program” is purportedly in place to help people work their way out of solitary. Instead, Thorpe v. Clarke et al. claims, the program has placed and kept people in solitary confinement for years longer than is justified.

“Not only has VADOC’s byzantine solitary confinement program prolonged – rather than shortened – the period of time people are kept in solitary,” said Ali & Lockwood’s Katie Ali, “but it has simultaneously failed to adequately accommodate people with disabilities. That’s a violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as federal disability laws.”

The case is scheduled for trial in March 2024. Plantiffs are seeking damages and an injunction permanently ending solitary confinement in Virginia.

ACLU of Virginia filed this case in May of 2019 with the help of White & Case LLP, and was appointed as class counsel in yesterday’s opinion along with the law firms Covington & Burling LLP and Ali & Lockwood LLP.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.