RICHMOND — Virginia’s efforts to help inmates in the state’s highest security prisons move out of long term restrictive housing have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice. In a recently released report, Virginia is recognized for a huge drop in the number of offenders in restrictive housing over a five-year period.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s “Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing” highlights the Virginia Department of Corrections’ (VADOC) Administrative Segregation Step-Down Program at Red Onion State Prison and Wallens Ridge State Prison, one of only five states’ programs lauded in the report. The Administrative Segregation Step-Down Program addresses offenders assigned to Security Level S, which is defined as long term restrictive housing.
“I’m proud that Virginia has earned the praise of the Justice Department for the success we’ve had in reducing the use of restrictive housing in our highest security prisons,” said Governor Terry McAuliffe. “The Commonwealth continues to be at the forefront of prison reform and reentry efforts, earning us the second lowest recidivism rate in the country. Smart administration of our justice programs is good for public safety, for taxpayers and for the individuals whose lives we are working to turn around.”
In October of 2011, the VADOC initiated reforms at the state’s highest-security prisons to change the culture and motivate positive change. As a result, the Administrative Segregation Step-Down Program was created, giving high-risk offenders the opportunity to work their way out of restrictive housing and into the general prison population.
When the Step-Down program began in 2011, 511 Virginia Department of Corrections offenders were housed in long term administrative segregation, whether for their protection or the protection of others. All but 84 of the original 511 offenders have completed the program and transitioned to general population housing. Only 15 of the program completers have returned to Security Level S. There are more than 30,000 offenders in Virginia’s prisons.
The restrictive housing report was commissioned in July of 2015 when President Barack Obama asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct a review of what he described as “the overuse of solitary confinement across America prisons.” Its purpose was to help develop strategies for reducing the use of restrictive housing.
Since the reforms, Virginia has witnessed a 72 percent reduction in the number of men housed in long term restrictive housing. At Red Onion State Prison, measuring from 2011 through 2015, incident reports are down 65 percent, inmate grievances have fallen 71 percent and informal complaints have been reduced by 76 percent. A school was built for the first time at Red Onion State Prison, opening on July 26, 2013. In 2015, 260 Red Onion offenders were enrolled in school.
In referencing VADOC’s Step-Down Program, the Justice Department (DOJ) states, “The Department focused on risk reduction strategies, enhancing inmates’ motivation to change problematic behavior combined with programming to provide new skills. The program includes cognitive behavioral journaling, the use of therapeutic modules, and security chairs to allow inmates to come out of their cells and join small groups for programming, and increasing performance expectations and additional privileges at each level.”
Offenders who would once have been restricted to their cells for the majority of each day are given the opportunity to work their way out of their cells and join small groups for programming. Performance expectations increase at each level of the Step-Down Program and additional privileges can be earned.
In describing Virginia’s implementation of the Step-Down Program, the DOJ report states, “The warden, his executive team, and all staff completed training to acquire effective communication and strategies to motivate change. The Department also created new positions of Cognitive [sic] Treatment Officers, uniformed staff who escort and supervise inmates, who are also trained to provide programming to motivate and support positive change.”
The Segregation Step-Down Program was also nationally recognized in 2013, receiving the State Transformation in Action (STAR) Award from the Council of State Government’s Southern Legislative Conference.
VADOC is working to implement key elements of the Administrative Segregation Step-Down Program statewide for offenders at lower security facilities who are placed into restrictive housing for short periods of time, giving these offenders an opportunity to participate in activities like cognitive behavioral journaling before they return to the general prison population. Applying the program statewide is intended to prevent offenders them from escalating to longer term, higher security restrictive housing.