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At Virginia's Supermax Prisons, Isolation and Abuse Persist Despite Reforms

By Katie Rose Quandt and Jack Denton, Solitary Watch

Red Onion State Prison, a supermax complex in the southwest corner of Virginia near the Kentucky border, has long had a reputation as one of the harshest prisons in the nation. So when in 2011 the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) announced it was initiating major reforms at Red Onion and nearby Wallens Ridge State Prison, the news was applauded by officials and advocates alike.

At the heart of the reforms was the new Administrative Segregation Step-Down Program, which aimed to provide a path for men to work their way out of solitary confinement and back into the general prison population. After five years, the VADOC reported it had successfully reduced the segregated population of its two supermax prisons by 72 percent, and decreased the grievances filed by men at Red Onion by 71 percent.

VADOC’s reported solitary reduction has been celebrated not only by the department itself, but also by state and even federal officials. In a 2013 op-ed in the Washington Post, State Delegate Patrick Hope and State Senator Adam Ebbin — who pushed for the reforms — praised Virginia’s “dramatic turnaround in philosophy and treatment of prisoners in solitary confinement.” Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said the Step-Down program shows Virginia “to be at the forefront of prison reform and re-entry efforts.” The program was praised by the Southern Legislative Conference — a 15-member council of state governments — as a “unique, creative and effective approach,” and highlighted as a case study in the U.S. Department of Justice’s January 2016 report on solitary confinement.

There can be no doubt that some of the men held at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge have managed to escape long-term solitary confinement by following the path set out by the Step-Down program. Yet a deeper look at the program, and at conditions at the two prisons, suggests that the extent of the reforms has been overstated.

Behind the Numbers

In press releases and in correspondence with Solitary Watch, VADOC repeatedly offers the same statistic: There were 511 individuals in long term administrative segregation in 2011, and by 2016 all but 84 of them had completed the program and transitioned to general population housing. While 427 people working their way out of segregation is certainly a positive development, VADOC’s choice of statistics leaves two questions unanswered: How many people are actually housed in long-term solitary (not just counting those who have been there since 2011) and what are their lives like?

After pressing VADOC, Solitary Watch received further clarification on the first question from Community Relations Coordinator Greg Carter, who said in July there were 242 people in various forms of segregation in Red Onion and Wallens Ridge. While this is still an improvement from the 511 in 2011, it is much higher than the 84 repeatedly cited by VADOC.

What’s more, men housed in segregation in Red Onion and Wallens Ridge say they continue to suffer cruel and inhumane treatment.

This inconsistency illustrates a major pitfall involved with solitary reform: Reported numbers can be misleading, and often don’t tell the whole story. This is not a problem unique to Virginia. In states like New York and Colorado as well, reforms have been less extensive than advertised, in part because corrections departments have reported people as “out” of segregation who are in fact still in solitary-like conditions.

Sometimes the confusing or conflicting information is based on terminology. One week before Greg Carter told Solitary Watch that 242 people remain in long-term segregation, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran assured the signers of an ACLU of Virginia petition that “VADOC does not utilize solitary confinement, which is defined as the isolation of offenders with no human contact.” He said the state had previously used something called “administrative segregation,” and currently uses “restrictive housing,” but that both allow for communication with staff and other offenders.

Gay Gardner of Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) a religious coalition that opposes long-term solitary, said Moran’s response is typical of VADOC. She says the department has always denied that it uses solitary confinement, and that this is not the first time it has changed its labels for various types of segregation. “What concerns us is confining people to their cells for 23 or 24 hours a day, whatever they choose to call that,” Gardner wrote in an email to advocates. She said the claim that all men incarcerated at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge have human contact “defies credulity,” adding, “That can be true only if they have a different definition of ‘contact’ than most normal people do.”

No Way Out

VADOC added a host of complex classifications and labels when it introduced the Step-Down program in 2011. The mindboggling flowchart that appears at left (click to enlarge), which is published in an official Virginia corrections document, demonstrates the ways in which some men may work their way — over many years — back into general population, while many others languish in official-sounding classifications that are nothing more than the same old solitary.

Under VADOC’s new Step-Down model, those in segregation are placed on one of two tracks: Special Management (SM) for those who pose a lower risk, and Intensive Management (IM) for those considered more dangerous. According to prison documents and VADOC’s response to Solitary Watch, those who advance down the IM track can never re-enter the general prison population and must remain — for the rest of their sentences — in a “closed pod” where they spend 23 hours a day locked in a cell.

Carter told Solitary Watch that there are currently 86 people on the IM track, 34 of whom have advanced as far as they can to Level-6 Closed Pod. There is no opportunity for these 34 men to advance to a lower security, and they are ineligible to request reclassification from IM to SM.

People can be placed in IM not only for having a violent history, but also for having ever attempted a “serious and planned” escape, or for having a history of “high profile crimes and/or significant media attention,” which VADOC says puts them “in danger from other offenders due to their notoriety.”

Robert W (a pseudonym) is one of several men who wrote to IAHR from a seemingly never-ending stint in segregation. He says he ended up in seg after a fight with another prisoner at Sussex I State Prison in 2012, to which 13 guards responded. According to Robert, the group of guards restrained the other man and began kicking, punching, and spraying him with pepper spray. In an attempt to stop the beating, Robert says he attacked one of the guards, earning himself an indictment of “aggravated malicious wounding” of a corrections officer and reclassification to segregation, where he was assigned to the Intensive Management (IM) track.

From his Closed Pod cell, Robert W. questioned the logic behind the IM classification — that some prisoners are too dangerous to ever return to general population, even after completing programming and remaining infraction-free for years. “All prisoners in the supermaxes have a past history of violent crimes!” he wrote. “If that’s a justification for IM, then all of us would be there.”

A December 2015 petition written by former Red Onion prisoner Kelvin “Khaysi” Canada (who has since been transferred out of state) and signed by 74 others states that D6-Pod (another name for IM Closed Pod) is classified as general population, but “operationally it’s synonymous to segregation. The only difference between D6-Pod and actual segregation is that D6-Pod prisoners can now have contact visits, but they have to be shackled to a security chair for the duration of this contact visit.” He added that individuals held at this level spend 23 hours a day in their cells, with one hour of recreation in a “dog cage.”

Robert’s and Canada’s descriptions line up with official VADOC documents, which state that “IM offenders in Level 6 will continue to be managed per Special Housing Guidelines policy… to include single celled housing, segregated recreation, and out of cell shackles except for the pod workers.” Canada wrote that “IM status… and D6-Pod is nothing but a de facto long-term segregation program.”

D6-Pod is not the only category of long-term solitary where people in Virginia get stuck as they attempt to “step down” out of segregation. There are also long-term categories for men who move from the SM track into protective custody (called Secured Allied Management Pod, or SAM), and a special pod for people who repeatedly commit minor violations with the goal of staying in segregation (called Secure Integrated Pod, or SIP). Men in these pods live in single-celled housing with meals eaten in cell.

Stepping Down and Slipping Up

Even the lucky ones who make it into the Step-Down program struggle to work their way back to general population.

Canada’s petition alleges that participants in the middle of the Step-Down program are frequently reclassified back to Segregation Level 0 security for “vindictive or retaliatory reasons without giving that prisoner a due process hearing to challenge his status reduction.” He wrote that this practice “keeps recycling prisoners… through this program over, and over, and over again,” preventing some men from making any real progress “for years and years with no end, which is nothing but de facto/ long-term segregation.”

Kevin Snodgrass reports getting caught in just such a cycle of progress and setbacks after his placement in Red Onion solitary confinement in 2013. On at least two occasions, he has spent months working through a required set of seven journals called the Challenge Series and entered the Step-Down program, only to get bumped back to level 0 of segregation for infractions. He alleges these setbacks are retaliation for filing grievances. Each time he moves backwards, he has to re-complete the entire Challenge Series. In May, his counselor gave him paperwork listing his goal year for reintegration into the general prison population as 2025.

Snodgrass has brought several lawsuits against VADOC and its staff. In one suit from 2014, he alleged that staff told him he needed to complete the final two books of the Challenge Series before he could be released from segregation, but then took more than 100 days to provide him with the books. That case was dismissed in the US District Court of the Western District of Virginia, with the judge determining that Snodgrass’ conditions were not atypical enough to qualify as “significant hardship.” In the decision, the judge cited precedent from a 1997 case that failed to find “significant hardship” when prisoners were held in segregation for six months amid “vermin, human waste, flooding toilet, excessive heat; and dirty clothing, linens, and bedding.” Unless Snodgrass could demonstrate worse conditions than that, he wasn’t going to get anywhere in court.

Khaysi Canada says Snodgrass’ experience is a common one, and provided IAHR with the names and information of 31 men whom he says have been fallen backwards after entering the Step-Down program.

VADOC does not report on the number of people who have been pulled out of the Step-Down program due to infractions, but reports that just 15 individuals who completed the program have since returned to segregation.

Abusive Treatment Continues

The number of people returning to general population is not the only VADOC statistic disputed by those held in segregation in Virginia. VADOC also notes a steep reduction in the number of grievances filed by incarcerated individuals. Prison officials and reform-minded politicians present the numbers as evidence that abuses in Red Onion and Wallens Ridge have been curbed significantly, but some of the men held there tell a different story.

Robert W. wrote that requests for complaint forms are often met with responses like, “You are not going to write me or my officers up,” or false promises to bring forms later. Robert said that Red Onion Warden Earl Barksdale is aware of this “unwritten policy, yet he declines to stop this practice,” despite the fact that VADOC policy requires 24 hour access to emergency grievance forms. Multiple men at Red Onion, including Kevin Snodgrass, allege that correctional officers go so far as to retaliate against individuals who file complaints by planting knives and homemade shanks in cells. Five months after he filed a lawsuit and encouraged others to submit grievances, Bradley Maxwell was placed in segregation for nearly two years for allegedly punching another prisoner — even though the other prisoner denied being attacked.

“The only remedy available to prisoners is to contact their families or outside sources and have them contact VADOC Director Harold Clarke’s office and complain on their behalf,” Robert said. VADOC has not yet responded to a request for comment on these allegations.

And the incarcerated men who wrote to IAHR say there are plenty of abuses that are deserving of grievances. Nearly everyone reported witnessing or experiencing physical abuse, the capricious withholding of recreation time and showers, or manipulation of food. These reports contradict praise from the Department of Justice, which wrote that “the warden, his executive team, and all staff completed training to acquire effective communication and strategies to motivate change.” Jack Bush, co-developer of Thinking for a Change, a curriculum used in the Step-Down program, wrote for NPR that Red Onion “is in the process of changing from what had been a culture of control and punishment into a culture of control and hope. Prison officers and counselors are trained to treat prisoners with respect.”

Yet Maxwell says that while in solitary confinement, he was slammed down on the floor, his testicles and arms twisted and crushed. All of his mail and documents disappeared when he was locked up, he contends. “You know, I’m a mentally strong guy,” he wrote, “But I swear, I feel like I’m about to lose my mind. I can’t win, I can’t even move.”

William Griffin told IAHR that officers frequently try to trick prisoners out of their recreation and showers. “This is done by trying to tiptoe through the pod with the recreation and showers list at 5:35 in the morning when they know that most guys are still asleep,” he wrote. “They don’t announce that they are taking up the rec and shower list, nor do they stop at your cell door to ask either. They just walk past and if you’re not at your door to yell out, they mark you down as refusal… If an inmate tries to wake up another inmate, he is punished by being deprived of recreation/shower.” Khaysi Canada told IAHR that some seriously ill men have not been outside in two years or taken a shower in six months.

Many men complained of being underfed while locked in solitary. Kevin Snodgrass has lost more than 33 pounds in solitary confinement. Another man said he is frequently denied dinner without explanation at Red Onion, causing him to lose more than ten pounds in sixty days. “I would make a tort claim of cruel and unusual punishment if I knew how,” he wrote.

Canada wrote in his petition that “K9 officers will recklessly usher their dogs into a crowd of prisoners where a fight is taking place, and permit their dog to attack the wrong prisoner or even the involved prisoner who’s lying on the floor and/or ground non-combative.” Griffin has heard officers antagonize prisoners with comments like, “You guys need to start fighting or something because we don’t have anything to do,” or “Our dogs are bored. When are you guys going to give them something to sink their teeth into?”

One anonymous man told IAHR that in 2015, while he was in solitary, his food slot was opened and he was sprayed in the face with mace by a lieutenant and unit manager. They told him if he reported the incident, they would “beat my nigger ass.”

Incarcerated men say that lack of transparency contributes to praise of the Step-Down program overshadowing the abuses that are still a major part of life for prisoners in the Virginia supermaxes.

VADOC told IAHR that a group of DOC executive staff members and specialists called the “External Review Team” visits Red Onion twice a year to review the status of everyone in the Step Down Program.

“A team does in fact visit Red Onion prison twice a year,” Robert acknowledged, “but the prisoners that they speak to are handpicked by Red Onion officials, so they get an exaggerated, sugar coated version about what is really going on.” Another long-term Wallens Ridge inmate wrote, “When Richmond comes to inspect, they add more to the meals to make it seem that this is an everyday meal, but truthfully we are being fed like animals.”

Policy and Practice

In theory, the Step-Down program is a positive development, and is drastically needed: In 2011, more than two-thirds of people in Red Onion were held in solitary confinement — often for years or decades straight — prompting the Legal Aid Justice Center to request a federal investigation in 2012.

Some men truly have used the program to work their way back to general population. And those who succeed are, of course, less likely to file grievances or write to advocates.

However, it does appear even as some men do manage to “step down” to general population, the actual number of people in long-term solitary remains much higher than VADOC implies. Sister Beth Davies, a Catholic nun and addictions counselor who has spent years assisting both prisoners and corrections officers in Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, called the Step-Down program “a lot of good press,” but characterized the program’s implementation as having strayed from the policy’s intent.

“I do think that the fundamental principles of the [Step-Down] program (in its essence) are good and could bring about a pivotal change in the lives of those that choose to take it seriously,” wrote William Griffin, who is currently incarcerated in Wallens Ridge. However, in practice, “to put it bluntly, I think it’s a joke!”

Delegate Patrick Hope told Solitary Watch, “I think we have to take every complaint seriously. I’m planning on trying to meet with the department soon and try get some answers.” However, he emphasized VADOC’s claim of a 70 percent drop in solitary confinement at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge since 2011, adding “I don’t think that you should overlook that they’ve made some significant progress.”

VADOC officials had promised to meet with members of IAHR and other advocacy groups, along with state legislators, to discuss concerns about the Step-Down program and conditions at the state’s supermax prisons. The meeting, scheduled for yesterday, was cancelled with one day’s notice.

Originally published by Solitary Watch on August 4, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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