Red Onion State Prison, an Expose: Racism and brutality equals kind and usual punishment in Virginia (2004)


I am writing this paper to make the reader aware of the persistent and unchanging patterns of racist brutality and abusive conditions existing here at Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) and within Wise County Prisons in general, inflicted against non-white segregation prisoners by white prison officials.

These Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) prisons, operating within this rural, remote and almost totally white populated region of the state (viz, ROSP and Wallens Ridge State Prison (WRSP)), have distinguished themselves with nationally known reputations for racism and abuse of non-white prisoners since they first began operating in 1998 and 1999.

But for independent outside investigations by human rights organizations, prisoners’ loved ones and other outside advocates, these conditions would never have been exposed and the VDOC and other Virginia government officials still refuse to acknowledge them.

What follows is a factual account of the abusive conditions which prevail within ROSP.

1. Physical assault

The more extreme abuses here at ROSP are increasingly taking the form of routine attacks on nonwhite prisoners while they are fully restrained (with hands cuffed behind their backs and wearing leg shackles), each time this occurs, the abusing guards employ a general perfunctory formula to speciously justify such attacks, claiming that the prisoner “pulled away”, from them or “attempted” to carry out some vague and limited assault on the guards thus “compelling” them to “take the inmate to the floor”.

The usual method of such a takedown is accomplished by the guards tripping and body slamming the prisoner face-first to the concrete floor.

Yet, more and more the types of injuries sustained by the prisoners and the complete absence of any injury to the guards (except perhaps hand injuries sustained as a result of beating the prisoner), contradict what guards claim to have done (viz using only the “limited” force of pushing an already manacled prisoner to the floor).

In segregation when prisoners are brought from their cells, they are handcuffed from behind, leg shackled, and “escorted” by two prison guards (p/g) who stand on each side of the prisoner, one holding each arm.

Handcuffs are applied through openings in the doors of the cells, showers or exercise yards:

Shackles are applied after having the prisoner kneel down on bare concrete floors before the cell door is opened, once the cell door is opened the shackles are applied to the kneeling prisoner’s ankles.

The following is a listing-and a very limited one-of such attacks as have occurred over the past year, always by white guards against nonwhite prisoners.

  • On January 8th, 2004 Maurice Hawkins #242361 was brought out of his cell, slammed face first to the floor and beaten at length by prison guards R.Phipps, McCowan and others. Hawkins sustained facial bruising, swelling and lacerations as a result.
  • During or around April 2004 John Blount #251510 was-while still kneeling after being shackled-slammed face first to the floor and beaten at length (for at least a minute) by McConnell, R.Phipps and others resulting in extensive facial deformities, blackened eyes, swelling, bruising and internal lacerations.
  • On April 6th, 2004 Dewayne Williams #223702 was slammed face first and punched by p/g’s, T.Austin, R.Boyd, McCowan, and others, resulting in a deep laceration across his right eyebrow and swelling.
  • On July 16th, 2004, a prisoner last name […] (he declines giving his full name and number for fear of reprisal), was slammed face first, and beaten by prison guards White, R.Boyd, R.Phipps, and T.Austin, he suffered facial bruising, swelling and laceration.
  • On July 29th, 2004 Timothy Morgan #242086 was beaten while manacled by prison guards D.Lambert, sergeants D.Tate and T.McCoy in revenge for his having allegedly flooded his cell when guards refused to accept and process his emergency complaint expressing a need for medical attention. Morgan suffered bruising and swelling to his body and legs.
  • On June 29th 2004, Maurice Hawkins was set up for “cell extraction” ie subjected to the gassing of his cell and a raid by guards in riot gear with electric weapons. This situation was created by Lieutenant R.Fowler who staged an incident claiming Hawkins refused to allow guards to handcuff him and bring him out of the cell. Once gassed tackled and restrained, Hawkins was beaten by the suited up guards who included T.Austin, R.Boyd, R.Phipps and others. He suffered bruising, swelling, a blackened eye, and a deep laceration across the bridge of his noise which has left a prominent scar. He was denied sutures by medical staff.
  • During or about July 2004, Jerry Scott (number unknown) was subjected to a cell extraction. After being restrained he was beaten resulting in blackened eyes and broken teeth.
  • On August 19th 2004 Roberto Mejias #306726 was slammed face first and beaten by prison guards Wright, B.Mullins, Lt Ronald Fowler and others. He suffered facial bruising and swelling.
  • On September 6th, 2004 Timothy Grimes #167493 was beaten, brutally in the presence of numerous other prisoners by guards Wright, R.Boyd, T.Frances, McConnell and others, and observed by D.Damron. The attack on Grimes began while he was still kneeling after being shackled and lasted some ten minutes. Grimes suffered as a result three broken front teeth, three broken ribs, blackened eyes, lacerations inside his mouth, a perforated eardrum, lacerations to his right eye and severe facial and bodily bruising, swelling and deformity, also a laceration to his back.
  • On October 9th 2004, Bobby Borter #300453 was slammed face first, beaten and kicked repeatedly in the face and body by guards Cox and T.Powers. Borter suffered internal eye injuries and fractures to the bones of the eye socket.
  • On October 19th 2004 Timothy Morgan #242086 was again attacked after he had been placed in five point restraints (strapped to a steel bed frame by his extremities with a strap across his chest to hold his body pressed to the bunk), for a suicide attempt. While he was strapped down in this fashion Lt R.Fowler sprayed him in the eyes and face with mace and left him to suffer in extreme agony.

Again this is not an exhaustive listing of such frequent attacks. Many more are known, however I do not have the names of the prisoners and guards involved, nor the dates of their occurrence.

Several of the above named prisoners have been attacked on multiple other occasions.

2. Medical complicity in brutality

ROSP medical staff is in complete complicity with this pattern of attacks. Nursing staff generally go through the formal motions of “checking” a prisoner for injuries after force has been used on him, yet while the prisoner is directing the nurse to the usually obvious location of his injuries, she will acknowledge only “minor” abrasions, scratches, and swelling or remark “he says he’s fine, I don’t see any injuries”, or otherwise claim he “refused” medical attention.

Many ROSP nurses are married to, romantically involved with, and/or have children fathered by guards who routinely abuse prisoners. On account of these factors, in addition to general friendships, community affinity, racial loyalty, and blood or marriage relations to guards, such nurses have a personal interest in the concealment of the guards conduct, and the injuries they inflict upon prisoners.

Even in the more extreme and difficult to conceal cases of injury such as those of Grimes and Borter, the medical staff keeps their examinations, diagnosis’s and treatments confined within ROSP so as to maintain control of the injury records.

Alteration, falsification and disappearance of prisoner’s medical reports is not uncommon at ROSP. Indeed medical staff in concert with security officials often go out of their way to cover up and limit outside exposure of prisoners’ injuries. One example of such practices occurred in the case of Borter (referenced above-Ed). Usually ROSP officials try to isolate me from prisoners whom they have recently abused, because of their perception that I will engage in, or encourage reprisals against abusive guards or aid the abused prisoners in gaining outside attention and in the articulation of complaints and litigation against such abuses.

On October 15th, 2004, I was admitted to the ROSP medical department and placed in a cell next to Borter, who was in the medical department because of injuries sustained by him in the October 9th attack.

I had been admitted by the prison doctor for observation and testing due to chronic intestinal problems. Upon overhearing Borter and I discussing his situation,-they had a nurse T.Phipps (the wife of chronically abusive guard R.Phipps) fabricate reports that my condition had improved and “lose” body fluids which had been taken from me for testing (to cover up the fact that my condition had not changed).

She then had me discharged against the doctor’s orders and returned to my previous segregation unit cell, in order to separate me from Borter.

One of the guards who “escorted” me from medical and back to segregation was Cox, one of the two who had beaten Borter on October 9th.

Cox repeatedly attempted to question me as to what I had been discussing with Borter, and whether I was trying to help Borter sue him or get him fired.

3. Torture as behavior modification

A pervasive practice at ROSP is the use of meals and other entitlements as mechanisms to control and modify prisoner’s attitudes and behavior towards staff.

These treatments are nearly parallel to methods reportedly used as “brainwashing” on US and UN prisoners of war during the Korean conflict (1950-53). Black prisoners are subjected to summary punishment when they do not show appropriate deference and submission to guards (ie are argumentative, are otherwise verbally disagreeable, do not “cooperate” with guard’s whims or are non conversant with staff), when they do not engage guards in meaningless friendly conversation or when they persist in speaking up on behalf of other prisoners being abused.

These summary punishments which amount to physical and psychological torture, include frequent denials of meals, outside exercise, showers, breaking or trashing prisoner’s property, (especially television sets and personal photographs), frequent harassing cell searches during which property is ransacked and confiscated and “contraband” planted, housing prisoners under stress inducing conditions (eg in cells next to prisoners with mental disorders, or those who are known chronic antagonizers who routinely bang, scream, or argue incessantly with other prisoners).

Conversely those prisoners who do show the desired deference and submission, who engage in friendly rapport with guards and snitch on other prisoners, are rewarded with extra trays at mealtimes, extra hours of outside exercise, less stressful cell assignments, guards performing “favors” such as passing items between prisoners and “not seeing” or facilitating access to “contraband”.

Prisoner’s mail is also used as a mechanism of behavior modification. The very same unit guards who perpetrate abuses are the staff who collect and distribute mail. Guards are aware that the mail is our principal lifeline to the outside and thus regularly destroy and “lose” prisoner’s mail or give the incoming mail of one prisoner to another in order to create and exacerbate conflict.

Prisoners have been denied meals for days or even weeks.

The measures indicated above are employed especially because it is virtually impossible for a prisoner to prove that such has been done to him, since guards will document that the prisoner is receiving his meals and mail, or himself refusing meals, showers, exercise etc.

Furthermore anything a white guard says against a non-white prisoner is always accepted as the irrefutable truth. While tampering with mail routinely extends to guards destroying prisoner’s attempts to file complaints and grievances, thus complaints only make it out of the unit if the unit guards allow them to.

The greater a prisoner’s resistances to guards, the more severely these measures are applied.

These measures effectively discourage most prisoners from acting as witnesses to the abuse of others, and even if they were willing to act as witnesses, the prison’s complaint and grievance procedures strictly forbid any prisoner from making complaints or inquiries on behalf of any other prisoner, this is intended to atomize prisoners and discourage us from voicing objections or concerns related to the abuse of others.

This method is also intended to minimize and eliminate the production of records  which would corroborate and expose incidents of abuse by guards, and otherwise contradict their version of events, since all such documents would be public records and valuable to prisoners as evidence in litigation.

Every one of the prisoners whom I’ve listed above under the heading “Physical Assault” as having been attacked by guards while restrained has himself suffered or witnessed other prisoners being denied meals, showers, outside exercise and mail.

4. Suicide attempts and self mutilation

Predictably the number of prisoners attempting suicide and mutilating themselves here at ROSP is extremely high, and it occurs with a frequency which I have not seen before in my fourteen years of imprisonment.

Such incidents occur multiple times per week. Guards themselves routinely instigate and encourage Black prisoners to harm themselves. One very glaring example occurred on July 24th 2004 when Sergeant D.Tate and other guards deliberately left torn strips of sheet in a cell-C301-and then placed a Black prisoner in that cell who was already supposedly on suicide watch because of a prior suicide threat or attempt[?!]. This prisoner hanged himself later that same night and while hanging suffered a seizure and very nearly died. He had to be rushed to an outside hospital.

Guards who cut him down, including sergeant T.McCoy, D.Lambert and others, were overheard by neighboring prisoners slapping the unconscious prisoner and remarking “we know you’re faking, nothing is wrong with you!”, in an attempt to cover up what the guards had done in leaving the cloth strips inside the cell, they claimed that somehow a neighboring prisoner had given him the cloth.

This would have been impossible since:

  • the cells in that unit have been specially modified to prevent prisoners from passing items between them.
  • there was a surveillance camera recording and monitoring, positioned directly in front of the cell.
  • the unit control booth, with guard and camera monitor inside, was also directly and continuously observing the cell.
  • the prisoner in question was supposed to be on frequent monitoring status requiring the guard who was working the floor to observe the prisoner and sign a chart on his cell door every few minutes.

Nothing could have passed to his cell door unobserved, excluding transportation by guards, especially since he was on strip cell status, ie the cell was completely bare.

5. Prisoner complaints, disciplinary actions, and staff misconduct investigations

In both the complaint and grievance procedure at ROSP, there is an open practice of race based bias which takes the form of taking anything said by a white guard as irrefutable truth, and what is said by prisoners as a certain lie.

Even a cursory review by anyone of ROSP’s complaint, grievance and disciplinary record will confirm this hands down. This practice serves to condone and encourage abuse by guards, protecting them from any accountability.

All prisoner complaints and grievances objecting to abuse by guards are deemed “unfounded”, solely on the basis of denial of any wrongdoing by the guards involved, no matter what other evidence exists proving the guards culpability.

Likewise any charges of misconduct alleged by staff against the prisoner is presumed true no matter what evidence-including videotaped records-supports the prisoner’s innocence.

In most instances, the guards’ written reports alone are the sole basis for finding the prisoner guilty at the “hearing” for the claimed infraction.

Therefore the frequent attacks by guards on prisoners are accompanied by  bogus disciplinary records as a cover to “justify” the abuse, and to cause the prisoner to appear as the belligerent, since the guards know that the prisoner will almost never win at the disciplinary “hearings”, and that the finding of guilt against the prisoner serves to corroborate and reinforce the guards version of the story.

Similarly, guards use the fabrication of disciplinary reports as a another mechanism of behavior and attitude modification, this method has also proved effective, since prisoners know that a single disciplinary infraction will likely lead to additional months or years in ROSP segregation. So long as he remains in segregation a prisoner cannot obtain a transfer away from ROSP. Investigations of the abuse of prisoners within the VDOC and ROSP are sometimes referred to the VDOC’s Internal Affairs office. ROSP has an on-site Internal Affairs investigator who, consistent with the “white equals right” formula, works only to collect and construct evidence in such a way as to exonerate them of their their abuses. In fact, such investigators are themselves past prison guards who once worked at the same prison and participated in the same sorts of abuse that they claim to be “investigating”. Although the majority of brutal attacks on prisoners are carried out inside the housing units in open presence of numerous prisoner witnesses, the “investigations” never involve questioning such actual or potential witnesses as to what they have seen or heard.

Furthermore, although each housing unit has a surveillance camera mounted at the front, which monitors and records activities inside it, twenty four hours a day, whenever attacks on prisoners occur, the tapes usually “missed” the incident or were “recorded over”. When prisoners request that such tapes be consulted as evidence in disciplinary hearings or in support of complaints of abuse, there is a blatant refusal to do so on the part of officials. Investigation and inquiries by VDOC and ROSP officials are never conducted with the intent of reaching the truth or actual facts, regarding an incident of staff abuse of prisoners, but with the sole purpose of manipulating, distorting, and avoiding, or creating facts which will support the guards version or produce a version which absolves the guards of wrongdoing.

6. Facilitation and instigation of conflict by guards

At ROSP the segregation housing units are operated in such a manner that the guards remain within visual and/or hearing range of the prisoners.

This is accomplished through having guards remain inside each housing unit, and with a two-way intercom inside each cell connected to the unit control booth.

These measures allow guards to routinely listen in on prisoner’s between cell conversations, consequently guards stay aware of most prisoner’s dispositions. Those who have conflicts and those between whom conflict may be easily instigated.

Frequently guards create conflicts between prisoners by playing off of criticisms they hear one prisoner make to or about another, creating false “snitch” reputations for prisoners or using actual informants and lackeys as instigators, or with the purpose of creating or corroborating labels placed on others by the guards.

Inducements which guards use to have prisoners carry out their roles as instigators and character assassins include extra trays, female guards, special favors etc.

Once conflicts are generated between or against the targeted prisoners (typically these are the prisoners the guards feel are insufficiently submissive), the guards then facilitate the attack by one prisoner against another, usually by throwing containers containing mixtures of body waste and/or magic shave on the other.

Guards arrange these acts by knowingly allowing one or both prisoners to take containers of such substances to the segregation exercise yard, and placing them into exercise pens adjacent to one another.

7. Ambulatory restraints

The usual response of guards to any situation in which they claim a prisoner has been “disruptive” is to place him in ambulatory restraints for up to forty eight hours, ambulatory restraints (AR) consist of placing a prisoner-handcuffed in front (with no clothing other then boxer shorts)- in leg shackles with a “black box” securing a heavy link dog chain from the handcuffs to the shackles, the dog chain is usually applied so that the prisoner remains bent at the waist in a cramped position and unable to stand erect. Guards refer to this as the “slave treatment”.

Any general movement by the prisoner while in AR causes the shackles to rub back and forth around the prisoner’s bare ankles quickly causing lacerations around the ankle. AR is standard procedure when guards use force on a segregation prisoner, particularly when he has been taken to the floor, upon guards claims that he was “disruptive” and “combative”.

One telling exception was the attack which occurred on September 6th  2004, against Timothy Grimes which resulted in his broken ribs, teeth, etc. the supervisory guard captain K.Chris declined to have Grimes placed in AR because guards who attacked him reported that he was “calm”. Grimes was simply placed back into his cell as though nothing had occurred and later taken to the medical department.

So, if Grimes is admitted not to have been “disruptive”, and “combative” or otherwise warranting AR, then this episode completely exposes the reality of a brutal beating without even the pretense of provocation or justification. The blatancy, severity, and lack of any real attempt to justify this attack reflects the extent to which guards perceive themselves to have free reign to brutalize Black prisoners at ROSP. (The very same guards who beat Grimes continue to work around him everyday.)

Indeed as stated above, the only reason there have lulls in the brutality against ROSP prisoners has been because of the persistent actions of concerned people on the outside, however after minor reshuffling of personal and token reforms, after lawsuits are settled out of court, and continuing denial of any wrongdoing, the abuses ultimately resume as before.

Only now the officials are a little more sophisticated and consistent in covering up and carrying out abuses.

Guards now target prisoners who are more readily painted in a derogatory light, with the more extreme abuses, while when abuses of others are exposed publicly and protested, the abused prisoner is pacified with a transfer to a more moderate VDOC prison, and a formal pretense is made of addressing the problem.

Yet those who remain at ROSP are left to suffer when brutality revives. Prisoners placed in AR are generally denied meals throughout the time they remain restrained. Unit supervisors, (lieutenants and/or sergeants) are to check the prisoner at least every few hours to see if he has ceased to be “disruptive” and thus eligible for release. The common practice is for the supervisor not to check the prisoner, and simply to continue documenting that he is still “disruptive”, so as to “justify” his remaining in AR for a period at least exceeding twenty four hours.

8. Tactical use of guards known to be abusive

Guards with a known and proven reputation for abuse are frequently those placed in the position to act out such abuse. The guards assigned to the “super-segregation” (superseg) unit [see below], have been just such known abusers and given a general license to gratuitously attack and abuse prisoners assigned to that unit.

As can be seen from the attacks listed above, under the heading “Physical Assaults”, it is generally the same group who have repeatedly attacked and beaten restrained prisoners, eg R.Boyd, R.Phipps, T.Austin, McConnell, McCowan, etc.

Indeed, most of these attacks have occurred within the superseg unit and all of the guards named as involved in the attacks listed in the “Physical Assault” section are or were at some time assigned to work superseg.

Furthermore on the alternative shift ROSP administrators keep a group of reserve guards on floating duty: unassigned to any specific post-who also have an extensive reputation for abusing Black prisoners, including S.Long, J.Ely, Stanley, and others.

These guards are kept in reserve positions, so that they may be called on to perform cell extractions or otherwise respond to any situation where a prisoner is said to be acting “disruptive”.

This is the same group of guards who were called on to perform cell extractions on myself and five other prisoners on October 5th , 2003. These guards likewise have a general license to brutalize prisoners, and work together to fabricate reports which give their attacks an appearance of justification.

On October  5th, 2003 this group of guards was assigned that weekend to work my assigned unit for the later revealed purpose of provoking a confrontation. Throughout the day they were verbally provocative. This culminated in a incident which stemmed from their having placed me and four other prisoners on the segregation yard and then returning to bring us in, after about forty minutes. According to regulation, exercise periods are to last one hour. Several prisoners protested at this attempt to shorten our entitled exercise period and indicated the intention to remain on the exercise yard until the whole hour had been completed.

Words were passed and upon each prisoner being taken in, J.Ely, S.Long and others proceeded to conduct retaliatory cell searches, ransacking and throwing belongings out of the cells as trash. One prisoner, Elliot Hawthorne #261609 verbally protested S.Long throwing a book out of his cell as trash. Long, Ely, and other guards responded by rushing him to the floor while fully manacled inside the cell and beating him. Consequently several prisoners were accused of throwing items at the guards, who ended in cell extracting six of us, myself included. I was charged with encouraging and participating in a group demonstration. Each cell-extracted prisoner was beaten after being restrained and put in AR. One prisoner Anthony Smalls #281754 suffered a laceration to his eyebrows from being punched with handcuffs used as brass knuckles, he had to be taken to the hospital for treatment. All others, also suffered serious injury. After I was restrained I was chocked unconscious had handfuls of my hair ripped out and suffered a concussion.

Later that same night while in AR, I was attacked again by guards who entered my cell and ripped out more hair. They then went next door and proceeded to choke and punch Hawthorne. The principal attacker Lieutenant R. Fowler, wanting to instigate a cell extraction against another prisoner he disliked set up Lamont Douglas #209709, and had a cell extraction performed on him, during which Douglas was also chocked unconscious and awoke with a deep laceration around his eye and a dislocated thumb. Medical staff disregarded his injuries. The next day all the other prisoners who had been cell extracted were each moved to other units.

Several weeks later on October 28th, 2003 I was accused of fashioning a three foot long spear and stabbing through the cell door, a guard who had participated in the October 5th attacks on myself and the others.

I was then taken to the medical department under the pretext of being X-rayed to search body cavities for possible weapons. While in medical T.Austin, S.Long, J.Ely and several other guards carried out a limited attempt at a retaliatory attack against me on videotape while I was restrained in shackles, claiming falsely that I was “resisting” them, which I was clearly not, (until they began me attacking me, while in riot armor).

They then had nurses corroborate their feigned injuries and fabricated multiple assault charges against me.

Any review of the videotape of this incident will expose the method employed by the guards-pretending that a prisoner has become combative, so as to justify violently attacking him, and theatrically feigning injuries.

This retaliatory attack on me, took place under the direct supervision of ROSP security chief Richard Fleming and numerous other ranking officials.

9. Supersegregation

The prevailing attitude among ROSP staff is that they are entitled to beat and abuse prisoners with impunity and remain free from accountability, whether due to prisoners acts of self defense, counter-violence, or pressing complaints.

I’ve  described above how they are protected from accountability via the complaint, grievance, and “investigative” processes, thus leaving prisoners with no deterrent force or protection against guards abuse, with the exception of a resort to our own physical resistance, or submission to guard tyranny and working hand in hand with abusers to support their abuse of others, the latter being no security against the capricious acts of a guard who simply dislikes the prisoner.

As a calculated means of weeding out and working to ultimately break all ROSP prisoners who were deemed to have any inclinations to persist in speaking up against abuse, or who possess the resolve to physically resist abuse, the ROSP administration modified a unit in one building (the C400 unit), assigned guards to work that unit who have distinguished themselves with their inclination for physical brutalization of Black prisoners and appointed Lieutenant R.Fowler as the unit’s supervisor because of his reputation throughout ROSP’s operation as a supervisor willing to orchestrate, cover-up and himself inflict abuse on Black prisoners.

This modified unit began operating on December 3th, 2003, and I and nine other hand picked prisoners were assigned to it, this unit has gained the designation “superseg”. All ten prisoners assigned to this twenty two cell unit except one were Black. The lone white prisoner George Slaughter #255923 was placed in superseg, because of a general dislike for him on the part of ROSP staff, caused by among other things, his refusal to play into guard’s attempts to turn him against Black prisoners. He was also previously beaten by ROSP guards in revenge for his “attitude” and an alleged escape attempt.

Guards broke both his wrists and injured his testicles. A prevalent practice of ROSP guards is the encouragement of white prisoners to avoid association with Black prisoners, through appeals to racial loyalty and the promotion of white supremacist ideology.

Because Slaughter rejects these appeals, he is routinely referred to as a “nigger lover”. Consequently, and prior to being placed in superseg, Slaughter has been subjected to extremely retaliatory conditions including:

  • being subjected to cell searches two to three times a day, every day for over a year, being placed on a cold food diet (not approved by the VDOC), for the same period of time (called a “finger food diet”)
  • having all of his belongings including television and radio broken by guards; having contraband items placed planted in his property; being beaten as already mentioned; being housed indefinitely inside punitive isolation cells; etc.

ROSP administrative staff refuse to acknowledge in writing that the modified unit exists or to explain its purpose. As already stated, the majority of the above mentioned attacks on already restrained prisoners occurred in superseg. In superseg prisoners are stripped of various privileges which prisoners in other “regular” segregation units enjoy, including access to jobs etc. The cells and cell doors in superseg have been completely modified and specially reinforced as have the shower units. Meals are served in a usually filthy metal box which is attached to the cell doors, when the hatches on the door are unlocked.

This unit is designed and operated with the intention of making it impossible for prisoners to physically retaliate against guards, while giving the guards license to abuse all those housed in the unit with impunity.

When ultimately ROSP officials could not produce a hit list of enough prisoners to assign to superseg, they opted to bring in prisoners beginning on April 26th, 2004 whom they had selectively stigmatized as prone to habitually masturbate in the presence of female staff.

An activity which female staff encourage and indulge, but report only selectively as retaliation against prisoners who are not sufficiently deferential to guards, as well as fabricating reports against prisoners for the same reason. Its generally only Black prisoners who are the targets of such reports.

Yet officials still will not acknowledge the existence or purpose of this unit. Another unit was constructed along the same model as superseg (the C300 unit), and in an effort to keep me from assisting other prisoners in articulating complaints to the outside and from witnessing brutal attacks on them, I’ve been bounced back and forth since February 2004 between these two separate units every few weeks.

Attacks on restrained prisoners usually occurring in one unit while I have been housed in the alternative superseg unit.

From the October 5th 2003 incident up until recently, I was required to go to outside exercise and showers completely separate and isolated from all other prisoners.

10. ROSP Warden Daniel Braxton

Daniel Braxton is the first and only Black administrative level official at ROSP. Generally ROSP has never had more than ten Black employees total, many of whom have quit or transferred to other prisons because of racial harassment at ROSP.

Braxton was placed at ROSP as a token Black warden three years ago in the wake of numerous investigations and scathing reports by human rights organizations1) and a multitude of lawsuits and complaints by prisoner advocates about the pervasive racism, brutality and abusive conditions within Wise County Virginia prisons (ROSP in particular). Braxton’s role at ROSP has been to act as window dressing, he has in no way addressed or corrected the racist abuses at ROSP, but instead avoids prisoner complaints and condones abuse .

Braxton does not involve himself in any way with the internal operations of ROSP, but gives oversight to the very same white administrative and supervisory officials under whom ROSP first developed and maintained a nationwide reputation for racist brutality and abuse of prisoners, viz assistant supervisor Yvonne Elswick-Taylor, security chief Richard Fleming and others.

All prisoner complaints directed to Braxton for response are either answered by his secretary or referred to other officials. Braxton makes no rounds inside the housing units leaving this to Armentrout and Fleming.

He generally goes out of his way to avoid knowledge of, or involvement in addressing the internal abuses within ROSP, in effect Braxton is a paper warden.

The only time Braxton has addressed prisoners directly has been in response to a fed-up prisoner persisting in acts of counter violence against guards or in response to a prisoner’s loved ones unrelentingly hounding his office with phone calls and complaints of abuse.

These sessions conducted by Braxton with the odd prisoner involve guards bringing the prisoner out of the unit and into an office where Braxton either intimidates him by threatening attacks from the guards or offers empty promises to look into the situation.

Braxton’s response to prisoner’s loved ones is the manipulation of their sympathy through claims that he is a sick man with diabetes who is seldom at the prison, or to pretend that he is concerned because he himself is Black like the majority of ROSP prisoners and their concerned loved ones.

Essentially his response is to use his position to either intimidate, retaliate or play petty cons.

It usually takes a multitude of phone calls to the prison for prisoner’s loved ones to ever get to speak with Braxton, since his white secretary continually shields him from calls by telling callers he is unavailable or not at the prison, or referring the caller to one of the white officials who is party to the ongoing abuses.

When a ROSP prisoner directs his complaints to higher level officials such as the state governor, the complaint is simply routed to Braxton for response, and he has a lower level white official conduct one of the pretentious “investigations” described above, which evade and distort the issue, Braxton’s contribution is to sign his name to the finished product.

Braxton is no more than a loyal Black running dog and lackey of the institutionalized racism and abuse that pervades ROSP. His completely symbolic appointment as Black warden was not intended and has not served to address or resolve such conditions […].

11. Conclusion

ROSP and WRSP were constructed and operate with no rehabilitative purpose whatsoever.

As former VDOC director Ronald J.Angelone put it with respect to the people to be confined in these facilities “what are they going to be rehabilitated for? To die gracefully in prison?”2 These comments come as part of an ongoing campaign of misinformation directed at the Virgina public, to gain its support for the construction and operation of these two expensive prisons ( which contributed to a state recession), by asserting that the prisoners to be housed within these two 1200 bed prisons were proven predators and frequently violent individuals who would never be released back into the general population.

This lie was exposed by Human Rights Watch3 who demonstrated that vast majority of prisoners assigned to these facilities were soon to released back into society while very few of them met the VDOCs own criteria for supermax housing4, as the VDOC never had enough chronically disruptive prisoners to fill even a fraction of one, let alone two 1200 bed supermax facilities.

It should be noted that as described in the “Supersegregation” section above, ROSP officials could not even produce enough prisoners characterized as “chronic belligerents”  to fill a single twenty two bed unit, but had to fill over half these beds with so called “chronic masturbators”.

According to James Austin Professor at the Institute of Crime, Justice and Corrections at GWU, “Virginia does not have a prison population with high levels of assaultive behavior.” The confinement of an 80% and higher Black prisoner population in a prison staffed by an over 90% white socially segregated staff body, with no sensitivity to, nor experience with Black urban culture, beyond media stereotypes, has predictably produced and perpetuated conditions wherein the Black prisoners are continually abused and staff attitudes towards them are hostile, insensitive and alienated.

“Racial and ethnic balance is critical in the minimization of anger, creation of perceptions of fairness, providing equity in interpersonal dialog, with underrepresented [ in this case overrepresented] inmate groups in the population, and maintaining cultural sensitivity.”5

Official public accounts of the construction, operation and internal conditions of Wise County prisons have been consistently shown to be lies.

The racism, brutality, and general abuse of prisoners inside them has never changed, except in the increased sophistication of the methods employed by officials to perpetrate, mask and justify such abuses.

These factors only increase the impunity with which such abuses are carried out, and the insecurity and desperation of Black prisoners on the receiving end of such abuses.

All reasonable studies agree that prisons do not stop crime, do not reduce rates of recidivism, and do not “rehabilitate”.

Indeed, they create dysfunctional tendencies which spill over into society, such as the exhibitionist behaviors created within these prisons that have or will become habitual for their practitioners, the race based animosities which are being created among ROSP’s Black prisoners etc.

Perhaps officials desire to provoke a violent reaction from those who are suffering their abuses, in order to provide yet another deceitful “justification” for the existence of these prisons and their harsh conditions.

But I see something building down the road, a reaction which may be much more sobering then acts of isolated violence committed on the inside.

Amerika’s political and economic leaders have never been people of  great foresight, merely myopic and reactionary. It is my plea that the reader move-if it be in their means to do so- to address the issues raised in this expose.

Because if these problems are not realistically addressed in the short term, the long term may bring consequences that cannot be easily or readily contained, and will likely affect a much larger segment of society then a few expendable prison guards.

The established avenues of official redress have proven ineffectual for us and empty of all substantive meaning and content…just as they are designed to be.

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  1. See e.g. Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Violations in the United States Red Onion State Prison: Super-maximum security confinement in Virgina (April1999 []
  2. Margret Edds, “Punishing Crime: Supermaxes deserve super scrutiny”, the Pilot Virginian, January 10, 1999. []
  3. Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Violations in the United States Red Onion State Prison: Super-maximum security confinement in Virgina. []
  4. Because the VDOC has repeatedly been unable to justify the need for the existence of any  supermax prisons, nor has it been able to fill said prisons, it has ended up changing the designation of ROSP and WRSP from that of super maximum security to that of maximum security while cutting the number of prisoners housed at ROSP by half.

    And a large portion of the remaining inmates are minimum security prisoners used to perform custodial maintenance and other work-basically they are just bed fillers. []

  5. National Institute of Corrections, Supermax prisons: overview and general considerations, (Washington D.C, US DOJ 1999) pp 17. []

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