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Virginia Prison Drives Women to Depression and Suicide

Overwhelming depression drove Shawana West to hang herself when she learned that she was being placed in the Structured Living Unit (SLU) at Virginia's Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. While the attempt was unsuccessful it did not fail to make a statement.

What kind of prison strikes this kind of despair and trepidation into prisoners? According to SLU prisoner Laura Brushingham it's the kind of prison that keeps you in constant fear for your life.

"We're forced to be housed with our enemies," she said. "...fights break out and they still house the same individuals again." Brushingham goes on to say, "we are being denied showers, ice, hot water, hot meals, religious programs [and] educational programs."

Department of Corrections (DOC) spokesman Larry Traylor says that the women get showers, ice and hot water daily unless they are on lockdown. He does not say how often these lockdowns occur or how long they last.

Fluvanna's SLU consists of two wings which hold 44 prisoners apiece. SLU is touted as a step up from Administrative Segregation which supposedly houses the most problematic prisoners. Yet some prisoners seem to prefer segregation to SLU.

Ten women were placed in segregation when a riot broke out between guards and prisoners on June 11, 2003. Dana Parson, one of the segregated prisoners said the riot resulted "after an officer had an argument with other inmates in the chow hall. The wing was very uncontrollable."

Prisoners assigned to SLU stay a minimum of four months but many are forced to stay longer for disciplinary infractions.

SLU prisoner Marguerite Richardson describes prisoners as "tense and nervous because there is the fear that it [transfer to SLU] could happen to anyone because the criteria are so erratic and in many cases petty."

SLU was designed to be a four-tier program intended to improve a prisoner's behavior. Results show that the program also has a fifth level that causes suicidal behavior. West's hanging was only one of three failed suicide attempts directly connected to SLU.

"Very despondent and depressed," is the way Glenda Bullock described Kathy Wigglesworth just before Wigglesworth slashed her own wrist and throat after learning of her pending transfer to SLU.

"On the morning of July 4, 2003, Ms. Wigglesworth spoke with several inmates about being distraught and that nothing in her life was going right," Bullock said. "She returned to her cell and moments later her roommate exited screaming, `she's cutting herself!'"

On July 16, 2003 Sherri Curry sliced her wrists after a confrontation with prison staff. Curry then wandered about dazed and disoriented, her arms dripping blood as she went.

"I had honestly lost control of my senses," she said in her August 8 letter to the Richmond Times Dispatch. But when a prison nurse slipped and was injured while trying to help Curry, officials reassigned the emotionally distraught prisoner to SLU.

She "should be held responsible for the nurse being hurt," said some unnamed prison officials. These same officials say that staff members are afraid of Curry.

DOC officials call SLU a legitimate correctional tool and maintain that it actually improves prisoner behavior. DOC spokesman Larry Traylor defends the unit saying, "Since the SLU was implemented, we have noted a decrease in both [disciplinary] charges and in problematic behavior in population settings."

His comment, however, says nothing of the safety and welfare of those actually assigned to SLU.

Shawana West said that the threat of transfer to SLU was what "pushed me over the edge."

Traylor had no comment on the attempted suicides. He conveniently cited rules of confidentiality concerning prisoner medical files.

However, Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Virginia gives his reaction to the abnormally high number of complaints by prisoners about SLU.

"We are concerned that it may not be serving the function that it was intended," Willis said. "It seems like inmates are arbitrarily being placed in the program and once there being denied of very basic rights."

Given the number of attempted suicides, riots and the forced cohabitation of mortal enemies who can deny that the inevitable cost for some SLU prisoner will be her basic right to life?

Source: Richmond Times Dispatch

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