Prisoner Suing Virginia Department of Corrections After 12-and-a-Half Years in Solitary Confinement
The ACLU of Virginia and the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday against the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) on behalf of a prisoner who has been held in solitary confinement in a state prison for 12-and-a-half years.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, states that the VDOC is holding Nicolas Reyes, 47, a Salvadoran national, in solitary confinement in the Red Onion State Prison in Pound solely because he cannot complete requirements of its Step-Down Program. Mr. Reyes cannot read or speak English and that is the only language in which program materials are provided.
Despite VDOC’s past acknowledgement that Mr. Reyes poses no threat to the safety of the institution in which he is imprisoned, he is held in a small, concrete cell for 22-24 hours a day, the lawsuit states. Mr. Reyes is routinely deprived of basic needs, including showers, recreation, and even meals.
On the few occasions when he has been allowed to leave his cell, he has been required to submit to humiliating cavity searches, according to the lawsuit. He has lost nearly 50 pounds while in solitary confinement, and his mental health has deteriorated greatly — the predictable outcome of being isolated for approximately 300 times the outer limits of international human rights law with hardly any meaningful access to mental healthcare.
Created in 2011, the Step-Down Program requires prisoners to complete self-reflective journals and other lessons before they can enter general population. As implemented, however, prisoners report the program is beset with problems, including a lack of transparency and clear benchmarks for progression, and can serve as an excuse for officers to retain prisoners in solitary confinement who no longer pose a threat.
The ACLU of Virginia issued a report in May on the harms perpetrated by Virginia’s continued use of solitary confinement, and recommended limiting its use to rare and exceptional cases for a maximum of 15 consecutive days in accordance with international human rights standards, and banning the practice altogether for prisoners with mental disabilities or who are members of other vulnerable populations. In response, VDOC denied the practice of solitary confinement in its prisons, and published an op-ed trumpeting the Commonwealth’s supposed correctional successes, including the very program keeping Mr. Reyes in isolation. VDOC claimed further that there were no seriously mentally ill offenders in restrictive housing.
“The facts of Mr. Reyes’ case prove these claims to be false,” said ACLU-VA Senior Staff Attorney Vishal Agraharkar. “In fact, solitary confinement remains overused in Virginia and nationwide, despite the practice’s well-known psychological and physiological consequences, which can begin to set in within days and can be devastating when the isolation is prolonged.”
Nationally, less than five percent of prisoners are housed in solitary confinement; yet, half of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement.
Mr. Reyes alleges in his lawsuit that his treatment at Red Onion violates his human rights under the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes, including the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment and his right to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. His solitary confinement also violates federal civil rights statutes, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and his right to be free from national-origin discrimination under the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“No person should be mistreated or forced to endure the conditions that Mr. Reyes has faced every day for more than 12 years,” said Maggie Filler, an attorney with the MacArthur Center. “We filed this suit to bring an end to these discriminatory and cruel practices for Mr. Reyes, and to shine a light on the discrepancy between the Department of Corrections’ rhetoric and its inhumane practices.”