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Virginia's Political Asset

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The news item, bylined by the Washington Post's Anita Kumar, was so small I almost missed it. But I didn't.

It reported that "the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates killed a bill that would have required the state to study ways to limit the use of solitary confinement in state prisons," especially those housing mentally ill inmates as is done at Red Onion State Prison in Wise County.

Should we be surprised? After all, Virginia (at least Southern Virginia) is among the reddest of the red states. The Republican zoo animals who sit in the House of Delegates have this urgent need to throw large dollops of red meat out to their constituents with some frequency.

And, it seems, there's no redder meat than being super-tough on crime. Especially when Democrats are trying to understand how their most violent inmates are treated and what, if anything, could be done to reduce the mayhem.

It was precisely that investigative mission that Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) and Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) had in mind when they proposed a bill after visiting state prisons last fall.

The Republican-controlled House killed the bill in short order in its Rules Committee, Ms. Kumar reports. A similar bill in the Senate has yet to be heard, but she says it's unlikely that the House would change its position.

Just by way of background, Kumar reports that Virginia is one of 44 states that use solitary confinement, has 1,800 people in isolation, a sizable share of the estimated 25,000 people in solitary in the nation's state and federal prisons.

Lamentably, the GOP's Kill-Bill action synchronized awkwardly with Sen. Dick Durbin's efforts at the national level to shine a little sun on the unspeakably barbarian practices of our penal system.

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The Senate's Number Two Democrat had called a hearing -- the first of it kind ever to be held by Congress. The audience heard blood-curdling descriptions of endless solitary confinement, lack of food, lack of health care, mental illness, suicide, and -- perhaps worst -- lack of dignity.

As we work overtime to stuff our prisons with low-level, mostly brown-skinned, mostly non-violent inmates, more will become known about the effects of isolation -- on inmate health, public safety and prison budgets.

And prison authorities in some states, even Red ones, may finally understand that the chances of a relatively smooth-running prison do not improve in direct ratio to the cruelty meted out.

The Washington Post story says that, according to lawyers and inmates, some of the state's 40,000 prisoners, including some with mental health issues, have been kept in isolation for years, in one case for 14 years. That's unlikely to produce warm and fuzzy feelings from those who are isolated.

What's totally predictable is that those prisoners are going to be exponentially more frustrated and full of rage -- very bad candidates for better behavior.

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Even if their anger is a political asset.

Our lawmakers desperately need to understand some of the paths toward better behavior. If they don't, we'll just go on spending more money and throwing more lives on the landfill of broken lives.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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