(Reuters) - Virginia’s prison system has violated the constitutional rights of inmates by holding them in solitary confinement for years, according to a lawsuit filed on Monday that alleges the practice can result in hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.
The class-action complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond, Virginia, by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a dozen prisoners who have been in solitary confinement for two to 24 years. But the practice is widespread and often used as punishment for minor infractions of prison rules.
After entering solitary confinement, prisoners are put on a “step-down program” that Virginia says enables them to rejoin the general prison population if their behavior improves.
The lawsuit said, however, that the program was a sham, designed to keep inmates locked away simply to make better use of the available space in the prison system.
“It’s this sort of Kafkaesque, never-ending cycle of being trapped in solitary confinement, not achieving perfection,” Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said by phone.
The Virginia Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While the ACLU has challenged the use of solitary confinement in other states, the Virginia case is the first to take aim at the step-down program, Fettig said.
The 98-page lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Virginia and the White & Case law firm, said that by keeping the men in long-term solitary for more than 20 hours a day, the state was in violation of a 1985 consent decree in which it agreed to end the practice.
Prisoners in solitary often experience weight loss, auditory and visual hallucinations, emotional distress, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe sensory deprivation and suicidal thoughts, the lawsuit said.
It added that the state also violated the prisoners’ constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment and their rights to due process of law.
The lawsuit asked for the abolition of long-term solitary confinement and the step-down program and that the court appoint a special master to oversee the effort. It also asked the court to award the prisoners with unspecified compensatory damages.
Virginia’s twin super-maximum-security prisons, Wallen’s Ridge and Red Onion, currently make use of solitary confinement, the complaint said.
Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Cooney