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Strip Mining Human Rights in Virginia's Supermax Dungeons

Red Onion State Prison stands out like a hideous scar among southwest Virginia's otherwise beautiful, rolling and wooded hills. Viewed from the air it looks like a mountain whose crown was hacked off and leveled flat. I remember looking at an aerial photo that appeared in the New York Times and thinking: "That looks like a strip mine, a strip mine with fences around it and a building in the middle."

Red Onion is the first of two 1,200-bed "Supermax" high-tech dungeons opened by the Virginia DOC since August 1998. Both are located in Wise County, near the Kentucky border, in the extreme southwest corner of the state. Coal-mining country.

It's a familiar story: as the coal mining jobs dry up (in other states it's steel or lumber mills closing, a declining fishing industry, or lost manufacturing jobs) in the rural, mostly white, backwaters of the state, lawmakers in the capital start smelling opportunity. The formula is simple: ramp-up the "War on Drugs" (waged mainly against urban non-white poor), then build pork-barrel prisons in the job-starved (mostly white) rural communities. Presto! You've gotten tough on crime, cracked down on drugs, and created jobs. It's a formula that lawmakers in other states have followed, but few in as big a way as Virginia.

Red Onion's identical 1,200-bed twin, Wallens Ridge State Prison, opened in April 1999. Together the two Level VI prisons pumped close to $150 million in construction into the local economy. Each prison brings 400 jobs to Wise County in what Governor Jim Gilmore proudly proclaims as "an economic boon to this community."

Gilmore asked the legislature to give the state's 7,600 prison guards a hefty raise this year. As reported in the Times-Dispatch , Gilmore s proposal would raise "top pay for veteran correction officers to $42,471 from $35,539." At those wages, the two supermax prisons pump a monthly payroll of $2-3 million into Wise County.

Trigger-Happy Guards

In April 1999, barely nine months after opening, Red Onion was the subject of a scathing 24-page Human Rights Watch report researched and written by Jamie Fellner, who called the prison "a discredit to the state."

According to press accounts, Red Onion guards fired their weapons 63 times, injuring 10 prisoners, in the first nine months the prison was opened. But some prisoners have written to PLN about other shooting incidents that went unreported in the media.

"We finally got some press on Red Onion," one prisoner wrote to PLN about articles by Frank Green appearing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch . "[The newspaper articles] didn't tell the complete story but it's a start. Frank Green did what he could do. He can only go by what Ron Angelone [Virginia's DOC Director] tells him. Nothing was said [in the newspaper] about the chow hall shooting or the shooting in the pod next to this one." Virginia prohibits journalists from entering its prisons and interviewing prisoners.

Human Rights Watch was also unable to independently verify the number of shootings. "The DOC has not released the number and kinds of use of force incidents that have occurred at Red Onion since it opened," writes Fellner in her 24-page report. "It also refused to provide Human Rights Watch with a copy of its use of force policies."

One prisoner, writing to HRW, said: "I have witnessed them shooting guns for no reason other than someone did not respond to an order quickly enough to suit them. In two months, in my pod alone ... they have fired the gun three times not one of those instances being to prevent or stop an assault."

The Human Rights Watch report concludes: "The use of force policy appears to be: if an inmate disobeys an order, a warning shot is fired. If the inmate continues to disobey, the inmate is fired at."

In one Times-Dispatch article Ron Angelone says that most of the shooting incidents are guards firing warning shots.

"That's just to pop off a round, and that's telling the inmate you've been given a direct order," said Angelone. When a warning shot is fired, it "means to every inmate, drop to the ground."

"This sounds unbelievable," HRW associate counsel Jamie Fellner told the Times-Dispatch. "This describes the sort of trigger-happiness that is just not acceptable as good corrections practice. Good corrections practice is to use the least amount of force possible."

The Worst of the Worst?

Some of the harshest criticism leveled at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge surrounds the selection criteria by which prisoners are sent there. Virginia has about 28,000 prisoners, considerably fewer than was projected when Angelone and state lawmakers peddled the supermax goods in 1994-95 with predictions of explosive prison population growth; at one point projecting 40,000 by the year 2000.

With the addition of the two $75 million supermax pork projects in coal country, Virginia's prison system operates at 92% of capacity. According to the most recent BJS statistics available, the state's prison population experienced zero growth from 1997-98.

Much of the unused capacity is being leased to other jurisdictions. The District of Columbia has a contract to house more than 1,200 of its prisoners in Virginia. Another 1,750 out-of-state prisoners have been pulled in from Michigan, Delaware and Vermont. Many of those are housed in the state's two Level V "maximum security" prisons, Sussex I and Sussex II (another newly-constructed $68 million monstrosity).

Many critics charge that the state is filling up Red Onion with prisoners who fall far short of the "worst of the worst" profile that Angelone is fond of peddling to the public. And the DOC refuses to publicly release information on the statistical profile of prisoners classified Level VI and shipped to Red Onion and Wallens Ridge.

Steve Martin, a corrections consultant from Austin, Texas, told the Times-Dispatch that generally about 10 percent of a prisoner population is what would be called "maximum-security", and he cautions that only about 1-2 percent are difficult enough to require "supermax" incarceration.

With roughly 2,500 supermax beds between them, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge can entomb a whopping 9 percent of Virginia's prisoners.

"That sounds like a very large number of beds for what I know to be, quote, 'supermax', inmates," Martin told the Times-Dispatch. "If they indeed all qualify as supermax inmates, Virginia has a tougher than typical prison population."

Ten percent?" countered Fellner, "What it says is either the correctional system is out of control, or they're misusing it and they're riding a political thing of getting tough on crime. Supermaxes should be absolutely the last resort. It's just not consistent with respect for human rights to put if someone in that kind of environment without very good cause."

Perhaps in response to criticism about $75 million half-empty supermaxes, Virginia lawmakers this year passed "Virginia Exile" legislation. (A hundred years ago similar laws designed to fill prisons with ex-slaves were known as the "Black Codes") Under the Virginia Exile law, persons convicted of possession of a gun and cocaine, or any felon in possession of a gun, are eligible for a mandatory 5-year "supermax" sentence.

Stan Young, warden of the new Wallens Ridge prison, said he's confident there are enough "worst of the worst" to fill his cells: "There must be, or we wouldn't be here."

Human Rights vs. 'Sound Correctional Practices'

For a more complete account of this story, readers can obtain a copy of the Human Rights Watch report: Red Onion State Prison: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Virginia, available on HRW's web site:, or by writing to: Human Rights Watch; 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor; New York, NY 10118-3299. The report contains dozens of chilling accounts of not only shootings but beatings, use of stun guns and stun belts, verbal abuse, intimidation, and racist brutality.

Angelone, who refused to cooperate with many of HRW's requests for documents and refused to allow HRW to tour Red Onion, said the report contains "misrepresentations and allegations that are not supported by the facts."

Angelone's spokesman, Larry Traylor, issued a written statement when declining the Human Rights Watch request to tour Red Onion: "Ms. Fellner's agenda and views are diametrically opposed to sound correctional practices ... in use by the Department of Corrections."

Sources: Human Rights Watch, Richmond Times-Dispatch, RoanokeTimes, Reader Mail

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