On December 27, 1996 during the lunch meal in the chow hall of the Buckingham (VA) Correctional Center, Warden Eddie L. Pearson received a gruesome personal Christmas greeting. Dennis K. Webb, a 32-year-old prisoner not eligible for parole until 2069 for stealing $47 at gunpoint from a Family Dollar Store, walked is up to warden Pearson and said, "Merry Christmas Mother Fucker," then slashed the warden from lip to ear with a homemade knife.
As is the custom in Virginia since Ron Angelone took over as that state's corrections chief, press accounts contain only his version of events. Angelone has banned reporters from access to the state's prisons. Not only are reporters barred from interviewing prisoners, state prison employees are forbidden by Angelone to talk to the press.
Sometime after the attack on Pearson, 20 to 30 prisoners broke through an interior fence at the prison and charged toward assistant warden Henry Ponton and corrections Maj. Calvin Booker, who were standing in the recreation yard. The assistant warden signaled an armed guard inside a fortified control room to shoot at the advancing prisoners. The guard opened fire with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle. Four of the bullets struck prisoners. Two were shot in the hand, one was grazed on the neck and a fourth was shot in the arm, breaking the bone.
According to newspaper accounts, prisoners set fire to the prison's law library, where Angelone said "every book was burned," and started nuisance fires in trash cans. Angelone told reporters that the prisoners' actions were "spontaneous" did not reflect overcrowding, restrictions or other external factors. "Let's put the blame where it belongs," he quipped to reporters, "on a bunch of juvenile delinquents in adult bodies."
Buckingham Correctional Center was locked down in October after a guard was beaten by three prisoners on a stairwell. That lockdown had only been lifted recently, and the prison was locked down again after this latest incident.
But even though Angelone has taken extraordinary measures to keep the flow of information tightly locked down, newspapers nonetheless reported that unnamed guards and some prisoners' families had been predicting trouble in the system.
"I heard that a few officials were going to get hurt. Everybody in the prison system knew about it," the wife of one prisoner told reporters. "I heard this was going to happen [because] come January 1, they're taking a lot of personal property away from [prisoners]."
Another prisoner's wife, Nancy S. Heltman, said: "It takes only a cursory study of the history of man to know that when humans are treated like animals, they might be expected to behave like them," she said. "If Virginia has a good history of well-managed and controlled [prison] populations, I suspect that history is nearing its end. This puts correctional employees and well-behaved inmates like my husband at risk."
Jean Auldridge of Virginia Citizens United for the Reform of Errants (VA-CURE) said: "From the letters that I'm getting from prisoners ... I've never seen this level of frustration before. They think it's hopeless .... Their personal property is basically gone. They don't have jobs. They are more and more restricted."
One PLN reader in Virginia wrote to say that "you should see things around here. You're getting a bunch of youngsters coming in with so much time to do that they can't see the end of it. Old timers are seeing conditions deteriorate to the point where you have virtually nothing to lose anymore. It all adds up to trouble, and a lot more of it."
"The result," says Auldridge of the deteriorating conditions, "is a sense of dehumanization on top of the punishment from being taken out of society and freedom denied. Rehabilitation is not taking place."
Angelone denies the critics' allegations. "All they're trying to do is get the same old story out about who should run the department, them or myself." The loss of personal property and other restrictions "had nothing to do with this inmate going up and stabbing the warden of that prison whatsoever," Angelone told reporters.
"I'm getting tired of every time people act like juveniles and are irresponsible that somebody's going to stand up for them and say it's the system."
Marie Deans, a long time advocate of death row prisoners says "the system" isn't at fault. It's Angelone. "What he's doing is creating people who are even more dangerous when they come out of prison than when they went in, and that is not good for any of us."
It would appear that this will not be the last Virginia uprising article to be reported in 1997.
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