Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Fourth Circuit Holds Prisoner’s Indefinite Period of Solitary Confinement at Virginia Supermax May Amount to Atypical and Significant Hardship

Elbert Smith, a Rastafarian VDOC prisoner, served more than four years of an indefinite period of solitary confinement at the Wallens Ridge State Prison. There, he was held in a 9-by-14-foot isolation cell 24 hours a day, except three showers and five weekly recreation periods, which were often canceled, in an 8-by-14-foot fenced cage.

Each time he left his cell, he was subjected to a highly invasive strip search and kept in shackles. He ate alone in his cell with virtually no human contact. The few visits permitted to him were conducted behind a glass wall, and he was allowed only two phone calls a month. The lights were always on in his cell, which had a solid-metal door, modified to prevent communication with other prisoners. He was ineligible for good conduct time credits or participation in rehabilitation programs.

Soon after arriving in VDOC custody, Smith was accused of assaulting a guard and transferred to Wallens Ridge as a “Level S” security level (SL) — a special designation requiring isolation. A few months later, he was transferred to the Red Onion State Prison supermax for intake, orientation, and assessment.

While at Red Onion, Smith participated in the VDOC’s “Solitary Reduction Step-Down Program,” a pathway to a lower SL. Smith was assigned special management zero (SM0) classification. He kept disciplinary action free and diligently worked on the program’s seven-part curriculum called the Challenge Series.

Smith quickly advanced to a higher classification, SMl, and was recommended for advancement to SM2, which would have allowed him to be reclassified to SL6, a big step toward returning to the general population. He was denied SM2 classification for failure to comply with the VDOC grooming policy because he wore his hair in dreadlocks—a requirement of his Rastafarian religion.

Smith was quickly transferred back to Wallens Ridge where he remained in solitary more than four years. His status was reviewed every 90 days, but each review recommended he remain in solitary for failure to follow the VDOC grooming policy. He filed a federal civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging denial of due process.

The court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Smith appealed. The Fourth Circuit appointed Georgetown University Law Center attorneys Noah McCullough, Erica Hashimoto, and Nicolas Sansone, and their Appellate Litigation Program law students to assist Smith.

The Fourth Circuit noted that, after Smith filed his lawsuit, he was transferred to Red Onion, reclassified three steps lower, and later sent to a lower-security prison. However, the severity of his conditions of confinement in solitary, the fact that he had no way out of solitary without cutting his hair, and the fact that his solitary had collateral consequences on his sentence raised a genuine dispute as to the existence of a protected liberty interest.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Smith v. Collins