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Independent’s Day: Solitary Confinement

Independent’s Day is a weekly opinion column by published on Wednesdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Independent Congressional candidate Jason Howell“Torture is always wrong.” That’s not just a bumper sticker sitting on my desk; it’s also a quote from Rev. Richard Killmer, Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT).

On December 3rd of last year, less than a month after the election, I had two options for continued civic participation: attend the Realize Rosslyn Kickoff Event or the Program on Virginia’s Use of Solitary Confinement. I chose the latter. The Program on Virginia’s Use of Solitary Confinement was held at Arlington Central Library and hosted by NRCAT, Social Action Linking Together (SALT), and Amnesty International (Arlington Chapter). Each speaker highlighted a reality that can be lost on the majority of us who have never had the experience: extensive, unlimited, solitary confinement is a violation of the 8th Amendment’s protection from cruel and unusual punishments.

In August of 1998, in Wise County Virginia, the Red Onion State Prison opened as a security level “S.” Its Virginia location was likely the reason for the presence of State Delegate Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) at the meeting I attended. According to Red Onion’s website, their average population is 799 prisoners but a Washington Post article reported 505 of 745 inmates were held in solitary confinement as of last October. I have no way of knowing whether two-thirds of inmates housed by Red Onion “deserve” lonely lockdown for 23 hours per day. The prisoners were accused of crimes and sentenced by our criminal courts after being afforded all of the normal rights we associate with our justice system. What the meeting I attended highlighted however, was to the extent that they were being punished versus being rehabilitated.

The mission of the Virginia Department of Corrections is to enhance public safety by providing effective programs, re-entry services, and supervision of sentenced offenders in a humane, cost efficient manner, consistent with sound correctional principles and constitutional standards. Accomplishing any part of that mission is impossible if the 8th Amendment to our United States Constitution is not being upheld.

Heather Rice, formerly of NRCAT, is featured in their 20 minute video, “Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard” and spoke at the meeting. In the video she states that extensive solitary confinement “…Destroys people from the mind outward.” This is especially the case when prisoners are held not just for days or weeks but months and years, for 23 hours at a time. Sustainable re-entry into the public or even “general population” in prison is nearly impossible; especially after having so severely damaged a human’s ability to psychologically interact with other humans. Public safety cannot be enhanced by reinforcing paranoia, delusions or sociopathic tendencies.

Spoiler alert: the movie Zero Dark Thirty mistakenly depicts torture as the means by which we found Osama Bin Laden. NRCAT pulled quotes from Senator McCain, and Former CIA Directors Michael Hayden and Leon Panetta disputing those claims. In September of 2011, FBI agent Ali Soufan gave an interview on 60 minutes asserting that his knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and fluency in Arabic – not torture – help identify Khalid Sheik Mohammed as the 9/11 mastermind. Torture rarely, if ever, nets a quality outcome. The inflictor suffers nearly as much as the receiver. If extensive solitary confinement is torture, then we cannot expect a quality outcome for our prisoners or guards.

Last year Del. Hope submitted legislation to study this issue. It is currently being held in committee but it is legislation I can support in good conscience. Perhaps you can too. Along with Del. Hope, Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) and Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington) all visited Red Onion State Prison last year to personally assess and address complaints. There are plans for another visit this March or April to corroborate the reported decline in solitary confinements since their last visit.

We can be both “tough on crime” and remember our humanity. We debase our prison guards by allowing potential dehumanization of our prisoners. Our mission in prisons must be more than warehousing bad people if for no other reason than we will someday release them.

On a lighter note, I no longer wear my nametag. Thanks for asking.

Jason Howell, a former accountant and a motivational speaker, ran as an independent candidate for U.S. Congress in 2012.

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