Step into your room. It is 80 square feet, smaller than most horse stables. It has a bed, sink and toilet. This is your solitary confinement cell for weeks, months or years. Your only contact is with prison guards and your food is delivered through a slot in the door.
Virginia is one of 44 states that use solitary confinement to manage some of its prisoners. It is used in Red Onion State Prison and Waller's Ridge, Virginia's two super-max prisons. In 2011 roughly 1,800 inmates in Virginia were kept in solitary confinement out of 25,000 nationwide. At Red Onion State Prison some 500 of its inmates out of 745 were in solitary confinement.
Two years later in September 2013 due to a campaign led by State Delegates Patrick Hope and Adam Ebbin along with the Washington Post, there had been a turnaround in philosophy. Solitary confinement had been reduced by 62 percent from 468 prisoners to 179. Prisoner grievances were down and correction officers were being trained to be sensitive to communications with prisoners. Under the leadership of Maria Decker, then Virginia Secretary of Public Safety, and Corrections Director Harold Clarke, a "Step-Down" program was instituted that evaluates prisoners for potential success and puts them in a program where they gradually earn privileges and can work their way out of segregation with an intensive program of training and classes.
Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, a parent of a prisoner in solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison and a leader of the advocacy efforts in Virginia, said, “I believe the Step-Down program is blatantly flawed. The Department of Justice has been bamboozled to believe the program is working in Virginia.”
Snodgrass says the program is psychological warfare, and there is retaliation to those in the program. She explained her son was under the impression he was getting out of the Step-Down program in May of this year but then they told him that he was on a schedule to complete the program by 2020. Snodgrass says that he completes one phase and then waits and waits. She said he never knows what to expect. Snodgrass added, “The guards get a gun, stick and badge and they hold their own court and practice law. They aren’t legal officials.” Snodgrass said, “I am fighting his criminal conviction for a crime he didn’t commit and then I am fighting his solitary confinement. We are fighting a case within a case.” The way her son, Kevin D. Snodgrass, Jr. is able to go on is “he has faith in God, he knows he has a family who loves him and will fight for him and he knows he is innocent.” Snodgrass said, “I have to just keep walking in faith.”
Del. Patrick Hope said, “We can’t lose sight of how far we have come. We have to keep in perspective that we have made progress. But I am very concerned about the 30 percent who are still in solitary, what they call ‘segregation.’” He continued, “when you get to Red Onion, you have earned your way there. If you get into segregation you do something to get there.” But he continued, “I want to know if there is a need for more mental health assistance; we need to take a good individualized look at who is in the 30 percent and who can be moved into the general prison population. We have got to figure out who they are and what we are doing to give them support and therapy.”
During Torture Awareness Month, Rock Spring UCC will show life in a solitary confinement cell through virtual reality in the movie "Breaking Down the Box." This film investigates the mental health, racial justice and human rights implications of the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. This event is a call to action for faith communities to prioritize restorative alternatives that emphasize rehabilitation, therapeutic interventions and recovery.
The 40-minute film followed by a discussion will be offered June 23 from 7-8:30 p.m. at Rock Spring UCC at 5010 Little Falls Road. The film was produced by filmmaker Matthew Gossage and the event made possible by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. For more information contact Laura Martin, director of Mission Integration and Congregational Care at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Breaking Down the Box"
This film investigates the mental health, racial justice and human rights implications of the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.
When: June 23, 7-8:30 p.m.
Where: Rock Spring UCC, 5010 Little Falls Road