Independent’s Day: Solitary Confinement

by Jason Howell January 16, 2013 at 3:00 pm 22 Comments

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 ARLnow.com.

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.

  • Buckley

    A reasonable position on the issue, but man is this random.

    • Part of the idea behind the opinion columns is that our columnists can address state and local issues that might not necessarily be the topic of current news coverage.

      • SoArl

        I really like this addition to the site. Don’t listen to the whiners!

  • AL

    “Torture is ALWAYS wrong.” Tell that to my ex-wife!

    • malaka

      Furry handcuffs don’t count

  • novasteve

    Why is it okay to waterboard US soldiers as training but not to waterboard jihadis?

    • Josh S

      Simple answer, steve-o: it’s not.

    • Marc

      Consent. US soldiers being waterboarded during training is learning a resistance skill, and soldiers have consented to this by joining the military.

      • Quoth the Raven

        It’s also a recognition that if Soldiers are captured by an enemy, they are, in fact, likely to face torture.

      • novasteve

        Like the soldiers really have a choice, Marc. That’s like saying you consent to being pepper sprayed in the FBI academy. You don’t get to graduate if you don’t do it.

  • Hee-Haw

    I was under the impression that the torture scene in ZDT is not the means how bin laden was found, but one tool. I think the Director pretty much said that.

  • Bryan

    Perhaps convicts who have murdered families, raped and tortured women, abused numerous children, are a danger to other inmates, require this type of segregation from the normal prison populations. Boy did we dodge a bullet not electing this fool. Sometimes I wonder if living in the Arlington bubble, prevents oxygen and reality getting to the brain.

    • Josh S

      Thank goodness you started with “perhaps.” So there is at least some oxygen getting to your brain.

  • novasteve

    Do you ever notice all this outrage over “torture” yet there’s no issue with the police being able to lie to suspects in order to solicit confessions or to get suspects to play off of each other?

    To be quite honest, and I’ve never been to a jail other than to do a consular visit, I would prefer solitary than to be with the general population if movie and TV is any bit accurate about what goes on in prisons.

    • Babby

      I believe your fellow inmates would also appreciate not having to be around you.

  • Ren

    Virginia is one of the very few places in the U.S. where prisoners in many prisons, including Red Onion, are required to seek preapproval for books. Lacking time to describe the whole scenario, I’ll just say that many prisoners have very little access to books or educational material (Shawshank Redemption aside) and that Virginia makes it even more difficult than almost any other state to receive books. If you care about this subject, feel free to look into voluntering with DC Books to Prisoners, findable via google.

  • GoingToHell

    is it just me or does he need to do something about the mole between his brows?

  • Rory

    If your a normal person and ever find yourself in a maximum security state prison, your life is hell. You will come out pyschologically scarred for life, even if you never do any solitary.

  • Bender

    So this warrants a disclaimer, but Peter’s Take does not?

  • Doug

    I was incarcerated and during my sentence for Robbery I served 2 1/2 yrs at Red Onion State Prison Super Max Prison and it is a psychotic….torture house! From the warden on down… It is a complete miscarriage of justice and disregard of our basic human rights for this place to exist. Anyone out there wanting or needing specific details pertaining to inside activities ie….email me and I will gladly help.

  • Doug
  • ann

    “There are plans for another visit this March or April to corroborate the
    reported decline in solitary confinements since their last visit.”

    Is there any news on this?


Subscribe to our mailing list