Monday, October 28, 2013

Red Onion Prison: Virginia's Shame

Despite its reputation as a liberal city, Washington, DC, sends men convicted of felonies, even non-violent drug offenders, to one of the most inhuman, degrading, and shocking prisons in America: Red Onion Prison.

Inmates at Red Onion Prison in Virginia suffer cruel and degrading treatment at the hands of prison guards and the Virginia Department of Correction (VDOC). This treatment is systematic and condoned by prison authorities and by politicians, both in Virginia and in the District of Columbia. DC courts send men convicted of felonies, both violent and non-violent, to Red Onion, because there is no prison in the district. Virginia authorities also send non-violent convicts to Red Onion and Rollins Ridge because of overcrowding.

Red Onion Prison has been the subject of investigations by Human Rights Watch, which found that the VDOC

"has failed to embrace basic tenets of sound correctional practice and laws protecting inmates from abusive, degrading or cruel treatment."1

The District of Columbia Department of Corrections (DCDOC) sends persons who have been convicted of felonies to Red Onion because DC has no prison facilities of its own. All prisoners, whether violent or non-violent, are sent to this Super-Maximum prison. As a result, non-violent persons are thrown into a violent criminal population where they are treated more harshly than those convicted of similar crimes in other prisons. VDOC apparently believes that it must control prisoners through aggressive, demeaning, and frequently violent treatment.

There are two kinds of cells at Red Onion, progressive and solitary. In progressive housing, two prisoners share a cell. Non-violent prisoners are routinely placed in cells with violent criminals. Any sign of insubordination can result in solitary confinement, where prisoners are confined in a small, windowless room for 23 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Red Onion and its nearby twin, Wallens Ridge Prison, were constructed during the administration of Virginia Governor George Allen (1984-1988), who ran for election on a severe anti-crime platform. The result of the governor's advocacy was a suite of laws consistent with American Legal Exchange Council (ALEC) recommendations that increased mandatory minimum sentences, delayed parole eligibility until 85% of the sentence is served, and made sentences up to 10 times as long. In some states, “three-strike” laws were adopted that guaranteed men who were convicted on a third felony, no matter how minor, a sentence to prison for life. These laws led to long sentences for non-violent offenders and increased the number of prisoners in Virginia's state prisons.

Red Onion and Wallens Ridge were deliberately located in a remote region of Virginia. Red Onion is 4 hours from Charlottesville, the nearest city, and 7 hours from DC. Relatives of prisoners rarely visit them there. These prisons were intended to be dehumanizing, according to Ronald Angelone, a former Virginia Director of Corrections: “It's not a nice place, and I designed it not to be a nice place.2

Human Rights Watch released its report on Red Onion in 1999. In it they described conditions at the prison but also gave details on what HRW was not permitted to do. They could not visit the prison facilities or interview prisoners or prison employees about conditions there. HRW reported that the DOC used prison walls to keep investigators out. Much of what comes out of the prison is based on rumor and hearsay. Prison officials keep facts away from media and the public.

HRW reported the following abuses in 1999:

  • Prisoners who are not incorrigible are arbitrarily deprived of the activities and freedoms available ordinarily even in maximum security prisons.
  • Prison staff use force unnecessarily, excessively, and dangerously. Inmates are fired at with shotguns loaded with rubber pellets and have been injured for minor misconduct, non-threatening errors, or just behavior that guards have misinterpreted.
  • Prison staff routinely use electrical stun-guns.
  • All prisoners are subjected to remarkable levels of control and forced to live in oppressive and counterproductive idleness, denied educational, behavioral, vocational and work programs and religious services.
  • Correctional officers and other prison staff threaten inmates with abuse and subject them to racist remarks, derogatory language and other demeaning and harassing conduct.3

The preponderance of inmates at Red Onion are black, and the staff is almost entirely white, drawn from the rural coal-mining area in which the prison is located. Many of the staff have family or community ties with each other. They have had little or no direct contact with blacks before beginning work at Red Onion.

We do not know what selection process or special training the DOC has provided staff at Red Onion. Inmates assert that many of the staff are respectful and professional. But they also describe some officers as determined to show “they can be badder than we are.” These officers are quick to use derogatory terms and slurs, quick to use force, quick to impose their authority unnecessarily and capriciously. One inmate described to HRW the relations between staff and inmates as follows: “The guards are young—for the most part—and possess the mentality of juveniles—as do most of the prisoners—and they are into the macho mentality—as are most of the prisoners. The two do not mix well.”4

Tensions and misunderstandings perhaps inevitably arise from a clash of cultures in which both black prisoners and white staff hold misconceptions and believe in caricatures about the other. But in a well-run facility with appropriate staff selection, training and supervision, those tensions can be minimized and kept from escalating into provocation, confrontations and violence. Unfortunately, white and black inmates alike at Red Onion describe an atmosphere of pervasive and blatant racism. Inmates claim that officers routinely use such terms as “boy” and “n*r”. One white inmate told HRW that an officer said to him, with reference to a black inmate with a reputation for sexual misbehavior, “What do you expect from a fucking n*r?” Another white inmate wrote to HRW that he had talked with an officer escorting him about a shooting. He described the officer as “so excited about being able to shoot ‘n*rs...’[H]e couldn’t wait to shoot some of them black bastards.”

Men in Red Onion prison have started hunger strikes on at least 2 occasions. VDOC has shut down all communications with the outside world at those times and spread misinformation to the public about how many men were protesting, what conditions they were protesting, and how they were being treated by VDOC. After the hunger strikes ended, leaders were identified and transferred to other prisons as far away as Washington state.

1Red Onion State Prison: Super-maximum Security Confinement in Virginia 1, Human Rights Watch, 1999, at
2Craig Timberg, At Virginia's Toughest Prison, Tight Controls C1, Washington Post, April 18, 1999,
3HRW 1.


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