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Legislators Call For Solitary Confinement Prison Data, Mental Health Standards For Jails

Democratic Delegate Patrick Hope wants the state to provide more data about the use of solitary confinement in prisons.

Democratic Delegate Patrick Hope wants the state to provide more data about the use of solitary confinement in prisons. Craig Carper/WCVE News

Virginia’s Department of Corrections says about 15 percent of people in the state’s prisons have a mental illness. Some end up in solitary confinement because of money and staffing shortages. Legislation has been introduced this year designed to address that, and put mental health standards in place for local and regional jails.

A few years ago,  Kevin Newby spent about a year in Riverside regional jail, where he was diagnosed with delusional disorder. He says he was kept in solitary confinement for over six months. For a while, he was only allowed to leave his cell to shower.

“And I had to take a shower in chains and handcuffs and everything,” Newby said. “So they only freed one hand for me to wash myself with and dry myself off with. And then I was just put straight back into my cell.”

State law doesn’t require local and regional jails -- or state prisons -- to collect or release data about their use of solitary confinement. And lawmakers say the data that does exist is flawed.

Democratic Senator David Marsden wants more data on solitary confinement. (Photo Craig Carper/WCVE)

“We just don’t have good information,” said Democratic Senator David Marsden. He’s introduced legislation this year to require Virginia’s Department of Corrections to collect -- and report -- more detailed information about solitary confinement. “And that’s what these bills are all about,” Marsden said. “Collecting information on who’s in the rooms, why they’re in the rooms, how long they’re staying, what their status is….”

The state estimates about 50 people statewide are held long-term in what they call restrictive housing. An estimated 750 people are held short-term -- defined as less than two weeks.  

“The length of stay is far longer than it needs to be, ever,” said Bill Farrar with the ACLU of Virginia. Last year, they released a report called silent injustice. It highlights the negative psychological effects that solitary confinement can have. Studies show people who’re there have a higher risk of suicide.

“And the reality is that: for people with existing mental illness…it exacerbates their mental illness,” said Rhonda Thissen, Executive Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia. “And people who have no pre-existing mental illness develop symptoms of mental illness.”

Bill Farrar with the ACLU of Virginia says solitary confinement is overused. (Photo Craig Carper/WCVE)

While Marsden’s legislation about solitary confinement data only applies to state prisons, other legislation this year would create mental health standards for regional and local jails, like Riverside.

“It will surprise people to hear that until this bill passes, there are in fact no minimum standards for mental health delivery at the jails,” said Republican Delegate Rob Bell. He says the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell in a Hampton Roads regional jail sparked calls to do something different.

“Instead of waiting until something terrible happens, let's get the standards in place now so everybody knows what’s expected,” said Bruce Cruser, Executive Director for Mental Health America of Virginia. He was part of an expert panel that studied what standards should be in place.

A top recommendation: screening everyone for mental health concerns when they first arrive. “Because you don't know when someone comes in...they may not have been arrested on anything related to a behavioral health issue, of course,” Cruser said.

Rhonda Thissen with NAMI VA says solitary confinement can make mental illness worse. (Photo Craig Carper/WCVE)

Other recommended standards: access to 24-hour emergency mental health services, and monitoring the mental health of people in solitary confinement. Newby says the only time he saw a psychiatrist in jail was when he first arrived, and was diagnosed.

A representative for Virginia’s regional jails says he supports the work to establish mental health standards. But, he says it will cost more money, and it’s unclear whether the state -- or counties -- will pay for the changes.

Language in Bell’s bill calls for a study of additional costs associated with discharge planning that would make it easier for local mental health centers to share information with jails and help ensure people are connected to services in the community when they leave jail.

“If you have somebody that comes out with, let's say seven days of medication, but it takes six weeks to get a psychiatric appointment...well there's no wonder that people are experiencing relapse,” Thissen said.

If these bills pass, it will ultimately be up to the Board of Corrections to create the new standards and enforce them.