Prison officials say they eliminated solitary confinement, inmates say it’s ‘ Hannibal Lecter-ish’

Prison officials say they eliminated solitary confinement, inmates say it’s ‘ Hannibal Lecter-ish’
Attendees at a rally for prison reform Saturday on Capitol Square called for better conditions for Virginia inmates, including the elimination of solitary confinement. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia prison officials say they’re on the leading edge of corrections reform for “operating without the use of solitary confinement.”

But Derek Cornelison, a 34-year-old inmate at Red Onion, one of the state’s two supermax prisons in Wise County, says he and dozens of other prisoners have remained isolated in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day for years — a level of confinement increasingly viewed as cruel, inhumane and a violation of international human rights standards.

“These people are very good with playing with words,” he says in a letter. “We (prisoners) call a thing what it is … sometimes ‘solitary confinement’ … sometimes ‘segregation’ … but most times we just call it the plain old ‘hole,’ because that’s what it feels like, like we’ve just been thrown into the bottom of a hole to be buried and forgotten about.”

He says his only time outside his cell comes a few times a week for about an hour at a time, when he’s shackled and led out to either be chained to a table to prepare utensils for meals, his work assignment, or to a small recreation cage, where he says he can look up through a mesh grill and see the sky.

“It’s all very Hannibal Lecter-ish,” he says.

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