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Abuse of Force at Virginia's Supermax

Shoot 'Em if They Step Out of Line

by Dan Pens

Shortly after publication of the July PLN, cover article: "Strip Mining Human Rights in Virginia's Supermax Dungeons", PLN received a letter from a prisoner at Red Onion, one of Virginia's two new "supermax" prisons. "You wouldn't believe it," he wrote, "there's lines painted on the floor and these hillbillies [guards] actually shoot people for stepping out of line!"

He was right. It sounded unbelievable. However, other Red Onion prisoners wrote similar accounts to PLN. And corroborating accounts came from human Rights Watch in New York.

In its June 30, 1999 report, "Human Rights Watch Statement to the Virginia Crime Commission: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Virginia" (available on the web at:`paper) is a quote from a Red Onion prisoner describing why guards fire their weapons: "for a simple fist fight that two officers could easily break up, for not walking fast enough... for stepping over a red line that leads to their cell, for not hanging up the inmate phone quick enough, for not coming out of the showers quick enough, for not eating our meals fast enough, for not sitting with who the officers instruct you to sit with in the dining hall, for refusing to roll your pants leg down when instructed, etc. The officers don't talk to the inmates, they just shoot the shotguns off, and sit there all day with the shotguns pointed at us."

Then PLN obtained copies of several Virginia DOC memos that provided the proverbial (and in this case, perhaps literal) "smoking gun." [See side bar on page 9.]

A typical shooting incident was reported in detail by Frank Green, reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Kudos to Mr. Green for presenting both the "official" VDOC version of the event along with eyewitness accounts from several prisoners.

The incident took place at 7:30 a.m. August 8 in Red Onion's chow hall when two prisoners engaged in a minor tussle.

"A gun post officer issued a verbal command to the inmates," VDOC PR lackey Larry Traylor told the Times-Dispatch. "The inmates ignored all verbal warnings and initial warning shot. The gun post officer then fired the first stinger round at the lower extremities of the two fighting inmates. This process was repeated until the inmates complied with the orders and stopped fighting."

According to Traylor, a warning was given before each shot was fired. He said one prisoner was taken to a hospital for treatment and was sent back to the prison. The wounds were described as not serious.

But contrast that sterilized version with the accounts sent to the Times-Dispatch by prisoners. Eric Williams, who was nearby and said he was shot four times, said "the officer in question was not at her post (facing our dining hall) when the scuffle began."

"She had to be advised by the duty sergeant who screamed up to her for assistance. When she recognized what was happening, she did not fire a warning shot or order inmates in the immediate area to disperse," Williams wrote. "Panic-stricken, she began to fire her weapon indiscriminately in the area where two inmates were scuffling. I was on the floor approximately 30 feet from the aforestated incident, I took direct hits to my left arm and left foot. Two rounds on each. This officer fired at least eighteen to twenty rounds."

Another prisoner, Ashaun Ra, wrote that the panicked guard "fired over 20 shots ... down on top of the heads of the two inmates." One prisoner, he says, "was hit 18 times. Five times in the head, losing a tooth, and 13 times in the body."

Williams also wrote that, "one of these inmates, whose name I do not know, was hit 18 times by these pellet shots. Five of these shots hit him in the head. He had to be rushed to a local hospital because he was losing consciousness as a result of loss of blood. The back of his head looked like a tomato."

The August 8 mess hall shooting marked the end of Red Onion's first year of operation. According to the VDOC, 106 warning shots have been fired, 63 prisoners have been targets of the gunfire, about 28 prisoners have been examined or treated for wounds at Red Onion, while three have been sent to an outside hospital for treatment. But prisoners writing to PLN say those figures grossly understate both the number of shootings and the incidence of injuries. The VDOC has so far refused to allow human rights monitors to review its use of force incident reports.

VDOC Director Ron Angelone, whom many considera dangerous iron-fisted tyrant, is responsible for introducing firearms into Virginia's prisons. The VDOC's "shoot 'em if they step out of line" abuse of force policy is Angelone's creation. Angelone was sued for initiating similar shooting policies when he oversaw the Nevada prison system. [PLN, Jul.94]

The Worst of the Worst
Angelone is fond of proclaiming that Virginia's supermaxes are necessary to house the most dangerous and predatory prisoners, the so-called worst of the worst.

But in reality, just about any prisoner can be exiled to Red Onion (and its virtual twin, Wallens Ridge state prison, both located in rural southwest Virginia). According to information obtained by Human Rights Watch, only 211 of Red Onion's 1,500 prisoners were assigned there because they had engaged in assaults in the previous 24 months. Another 45 Red Onion prisoners were sent there because of a "recent pattern of poor institutional adjustment." VDOC has stated that 92 prisoners were assigned to Red Onion because of their "need to establish stable adjustment."

What kind of prisoner needs to establish a stable adjustment? And why would he need to be shipped down state to a virtual human target-shooting gallery to find it? The case of Johnnie Lewis Wood provides an illuminating example.

Wood, 35, was serving 2 years, 3 months for driving on a suspended license, evading and eluding police, and possession of a trace of cocaine. Hardly your typical "dangerous violent predator." He was doing time at the Coffeewood Correctional Center when Ron Angelone and the state's Board of Corrections were touring the minimum-security facility on March 17, 1999. In a July 1 letter to state senator Joseph Gartlan, a copy of which was obtained by PLN, Wood described his March 17 encounter with Angelone:

"I approached an individual [who was conducting some kind of tour] and I asked the gentleman [Angelone] if I could ask him a question, and he replied, 'shoot,' so I asked him why the heat registers [are] so high up on the wall when everyone knows that hot air rises and cold air descends..."

Wood says, "[Angelone] responded by saying, 'No, son, everyone knows that cold air rises and heat settles,' and I stated, 'No sir, I can't go for that one,' and a young lady from the group interjected upon the man's comment and said that she agreed with me, which highly upset the gentleman."

Wood wrote that Angelone left the dormitory, "and several minutes later, the gentleman I'd spoken to returned and asked me if I knew who he was, and I said, ' no sir,' and then he stated that he was Ronald Angelone, the director ...."

Wood added, "[Angelone] went on to ask me if I'd ever been to Red Onion ... and when I said no, Mr. Angelone said, 'well, you'd better pack your stuff because y re on your way there,' and then he walked away."

"Not 20 minutes later several correctional officers came into the dormitory and ordered me to pack up my belongings after which I was placed in in an isolation cell and the following day I was transferred to Red Onion State Prison," wrote Wood, who had only six months left to serve at the time.

Department spin doctor Larry Traylor told the Times-Dispatch that "this inmate did stop the director... he mouthed off to the director. The director was extremely annoyed. Yes, he was upset by this inmate's attitude in front of the board, in front of the director, and in front of other inmates," said Traylor. "It was seen as a challenge to Angelone's authority," he said.

Red Onion is a Level VI prison. A "classification score" of 34 or above is generally needed to be sent there. VDOC records obtained by the Times-Dispatch show that Wood arrived at Red Onion on March 18, 1999. An April 22 departmental "Inmate Reclassification Score Sheet" gave Wood three points. It indicated that Wood had no prior disciplinary infractions. Three points would ordinarily place a prisoner in a Level I minimum security facility. However, a "discretionary override" for "Needs to Establish Stable Adjustment" qualified him as one of Virginia's worst of the worst.

"I saw this man get shot in the face," said Wood, describing the kind of "stable adjustment" commonly available at Red Onion. "My life was in danger there. And I was scared for my life. Right now I take medication to hold onto my nerves, and I wasn't like this before I was subject to this."

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

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