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Traditionally, segregation has been a punitive measure imposed for a set period of time, after a disciplinary hearing, as punishment for misconduct. In Virginia, as in all other states, authorities are increasingly utilizing indefinite “administrative” segregation as a custodial management tool. Whether in disciplinary or administrative segregation, the conditions for inmates are the essentially the same. Administrative segregation, however, provides prison administrators with much greater flexibility, and decisions to impose it are subject to little scrutiny from the courts.

Because of the potential for abuse and the hardship on inmates, it is essential that careful standards and safeguards for the use of administrative segregation be developed and applied. The DOC’s segregation policy does not enumerate clear criteria. It gives wide latitude to facility administrators to determine whom they choose to place in segregation, stating merely: “Examples of inmates assigned to segregation ordinarily include inmates presenting chronic behavior problems or those who present a serious threat to themselves or to others. They may be severe escape risks or seriously aggressive individuals.”42 This statement would permit, for example, the placement in segregation of mentally ill inmates as well as nuisance inmates who are nonviolent but who repeatedly violate minor rules. It is our understanding that placement in segregation at another facility does not automatically mean placement in segregation upon transfer to Red Onion. Similarly, prior placement in general population is not a guarantee that transfer to Red Onion will be to general population there. The decision about whether an inmate is placed in segregation is made at the institution.

The DOC has not made public any information on the profile of inmates in segregation at Red Onion. We are aware of at least one inmate who does not meet reasonable criteria for being confined in prolonged social isolation with extreme security controls. Although a due process hearing is supposed to be held prior to assignment to segregation—and inmates may apparently grieve segregation decisions—the lack of any clear criteria preclude successful inmate challenges.

Segregation in Virginia is indefinite. DOC policies provide no guidance on permissible length of time in segregation. Inmates do not know what, if anything, they can do to secure their release to general population. While the DOC’s operating procedure mandates periodic reviews of an inmate’s placement in segregation, it does not specify criteria for guiding the institution’s decision-making process. Nor does it affirm the goal of safely transferring inmates to lesser custody as soon as feasible.

During the first sixty days of confinement in segregation at Red Onion, an inmate is reviewed once a week by the treatment program supervisor who acts as the Institutional Classification Authority (ICA). After that the review is every thirty days. In practice, the “review” consists of a brief meeting at the cell door. The ICA makes a recommendation to the warden, who has final decision over whether an inmate will be released to general population. Inmates assert that they are not told and do not know what -- if anything -- they can do to hasten release from segregation. Inmates in theory can appeal the decision through the grievance procedure, but such grievances go nowhere.

Ordinarily, prison inmates prefer general population to segregation. At Red Onion, however, inmates find it a close call. Inmates in general population are double-celled, the amount of out-of-cell time in general population is not that much greater than for segregation, and in general population inmates are exposed to “trigger happy” guards. As one inmate wrote to Human Rights Watch, “Frankly, in many ways, it is safer to be in the segregation unit than in the so-called general population. Inmate on inmate violence virtually does not exist [at Red Onion]. Inmate on guard violence virtually does not exist here. Guard on inmate violence is high.”

42 VA DOC, DOP 822-7.4: Isolation, Segregation, and Detention, April 16, 1992.

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