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Virginia Downsizing Overbuilt Supermaxes

Critics have long claimed that Virginia grossly overestimated its need for supermaxesprisons that ostensibly house "the-worst of the worst." Early in 2003, Virginia undertook actions which reduced the number of beds classified as supermax from 2,400 to 550. This seems to confirm the criticism.

"I think it can't be seen as anything else but a concession that they did overbuild and overestimate supermax capacity," said David Fathi, an attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project. The Virginia Department of Corrections has another explanation for the overcapacity: the supermaxes made themselves obsolete by modifying prisoner behavior. Thus, according to the DOC, there are fewer supermax prisoners because so many "graduated down" from supermax to lower custody levels.

This claim is belied by statistics. Supermax incarceration is justified for about 1 percent of any prison system's population according to James Austin of the Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections at George Washington University. Virginia built enough supermax beds to house 9 percent of its population. With the reduction, it now has slightly under 2 percent of its population in supermax cells. Additionally, a 1999 Human Rights Watch report on Red Onion supermax stated that "Little information was ever provided to the public to substantiate the projected existence of 2,400 chronically dangerous inmates in Virginia."

Virginia classifies prisoners in six levels. Level One prisoners are usually placed in a work camp or minimum-security prison. Level Six prisoner go to a supermax. Levels Two, Three, and Four cover minimum, medium, and maximum security prisoners.

Virginia originally built two 1,200-man supermax prisonsRed Onion State Prison and Wallen's Ridge State Prison. Each was built on an isolated mountaintop and each had elaborate security measures designed into the prison. Now, the DOC has reclassified Wallen's Ridge to Level Five (maximum security) and reduced the number of Level Six bunks at Red Onion to 550. Red Onion also has 128 double-occupancy beds for prisoners transitioning from Level Six to Level Five and 170 beds which are designated Level One or Level Two for prisoners assigned to work details at the prison.

Prior to the changes, about a third of Red Onion's Level Six beds were in double occupancy cells. This policy was controversial as the presumably violent Level Six prisoners could hardly be expected to be peaceful when locked up with a cell partner 23 hours a day. Criticism increased when Joseph Armstrong, a Level Six prisoner made his dislike of homosexuals known to the Red Onion administration, then allegedly killed his homosexual cell partner when administrators ignored him. Armstrong was charged with the capital murder of Kenneth Wayne Booth and was scheduled for trial in Wise County on July 7, 2003. Prosecutors later dismissed the charges claiming that because Armstrong was already serving a life sentence for murder, it was pointless to convict him for yet another murder. Armstrong claimed he was innocent and that Booth had committed suicide. It is extremely unusual for prison murders to go unprosecuted, much less for the reasons given by the prosecutor.

Complaints against Red Onion and Wallen's Ridge guards for excessive use of force have been frequent and serious. The complaints included inappropriate use of stun guns, shotguns firing rubber pellets and five-point restraints. [See PLN July .1999, pg. 1; Feb. 2000, pp. 8-9; Dec. 2000, pg. 11; Jan. 2001, pp. 17-18; March 2002, pg. 4; Jan. 2003, pg. 17; Feb. 2003, pg.5]. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is conducting an investigation of conditions at Red Onion.

Simply redesignating Level Six prisons or cells to lower levels does not make them similar to purpose-built lower level prisons. Level Six prisons have gun ports for guards with shotguns and high-tech security equipment. They don't have classrooms, chapels and group recreation areas found in other prisons. Their design prevents them from being efficiently used as lower security prisons.

"They may be calling Wallen's Ridge a Level 5, and the inmates get to go out of their cells," said Jamie Fellner, associate counsel for Human Rights Watch. "But where are they going, and what do they have to do when they get there?"

Source: The Roanoke (VA) Times

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