Abuse Reports Culminate In Hair-Raising Assault By Red Onion State Prison Guards (2012)

In the following report, Rashid details a vicious racist attack on his person by guards at Red Onion State Prison, which occurred on December 12, 2011. Since this report was written, Rashid’s situation has gotten even worse, as earlier this week he was transferred to Wallens Ridge State Prison (Virginia’s other supermax), where he was confined between 2000 and 2003, a period when he was repeatedly singled out for abuse by guards (many of whom are still working there). Already, he has been subjected to death threats from guards, has had his food tampered with (i.e. has found metal in it), been given clothes that were sprayed with an irritant, etc.

A subsequent report on this transfer will be posted here shortly. In the meantime, here is Rashid’s January 10 article, detailing the December 12 assault:

Background to the Attack

On December 12, 2011, a Red Onion State Prison guard, sergeant Tony R. Adams, ripped a large mass of hair from my head, much of it from the roots. At the time I was handcuffed behind my back, leg shackled and held pinned against a locked door by several other guards. The torn out hair covered an area of about 3 inches by 7 inches across the front and side of my head. (See Exhibit A). Prior to the attack I had a headful of dreadlocks approximately a foot and a half long.

The attack follows a long history of reports I’ve sent out naming Adams as a major source of abuse and cover-ups at the prison. Previously employed in the prison’s dog kennel, Adams was appointed as investigator – from early 2005 through October 2011 – by Tracy Ray, who was Red Onion’s chief warden from October 2004 through October 2011.

Up through Ray’s appointment as warden, Red Onion maintained national notoriety for extreme brutality, racism and abuse against its predominantly Black prisoner population, by it’s almost exclusively white rural staff. Resulting in several critical reports by human rights organizations, a lot of bad media, U.S. Justice Department probes, and outside protests. As reported in a prior article, Ray came onboard to clean up Red Onion’s image, an agenda shared by Adams, who as investigator was directly responsible for investigating abuse complaints. Adams distinguished himself as a vengeful cover-up artist, who’d retaliate against prisoners who complained of abuses and especially those who challenged and complained against him. In addition to frequently destroying and obstructing our mail, his direct abuses included placing false gang profiles on prisoners including against me, inciting and facilitating violence between prisoners, destroying our property, etc. He quickly became and remained one of the most disliked of all Red Onion guards.

Subsequently an outside family and I co-founded an advocacy group called SPARC, to help organize exposure and challenge of abuses at Red Onion. Adams took immediate personal interest and counteraction.

When A—-, a SPARC member. contacted the prison’s mailroom clerk in response to a complaint of missing mail from a prisoner D—-, Adams personally called her back. He tried various angles to discourage her involvement with SPARC and supporting prisoners. When his efforts failed he then threatened to tell D—- that A—- had lied to him about contacting the prison about his mail issue, so to undermine her and SPARC’s credibility with prisoners. He also threatened to ban SPARC’s correspondences with prisoners by falsely accusing her of passing messages between gang members. He then had much of SPARC’s mail disappeared and blocked from delivery to prisoners, and confronted me with routine threats and harassments.

He took very personal my persistence in exposing abuses at the prison, involving outside people in doing so, and in effect counteracting his entire agenda of trying to protect the prison’s image. He also took personal offense to my winning support amongst whites and having white visitors whom he disparaged as “nigger lovers”. One frequent visitor and friend he had banned from visiting at Red Onion and another prison close by – Wallens Ridge – under false claims that she was trying to coordinate a prisoner uprising at various prisons. While she was able to have visitation privileges restored at Wallens Ridge, Adams succeeded in permanently banning her from visiting me at Red Onion.

It was only after several prisoners violently died at the prison under their watch, that Ray and Adams were removed during October 2011 as warden and investigator, respectively. Ray was reassigned to another prison and Adams was restored to his prior rank as a petty sergeant.

Ray was replaced by Randy Mathena as warden. Mathena was Red Onion’s assistant warden when the prison first opened in 1998 and during the early years when it won nationwide notoriety as one of the country’s most racist and abusive prisons. Mathena’s return has seen a resurgence of open abuse and assaults by guards.

The Attack

On October 27, 2011, Adams confronted me with threats that he was going to shut me up, that he had a better opportunity to do this now since he was “no longer the investigator”, and Mathena was warden. I made record of his threats by filing two emergency grievances, log numbers 030238 and 030239.

Subsequently, on December 12, 2011, he accompanied several other guards in confronting me on a segregation exercise yard while I was locked inside an exercise cage, claiming falsely that I’d refused to come off the yard when I had not. He immediately began threatening that he was going to “get” me, wanted “a piece of” me, was going to “fuck [me] up”, etc., obviously attempting to provoke me into actually refusing to allow myself to be handcuffed and leg shackled to come off the yard, so removal by force could be “justified”.

A portable audio video camera was brought out to film what followed, which made apparent they were expecting an altercation.

Ignoring the threats and provocation attempts, I allowed the guards to apply the handcuffs behind my back and shackles, and was then escorted from the exercise yard cage by two guards, holding both my arms and with palms against my shoulder blades. (See Exhibit B). This method of “escorting” segregation prisoners is used ostensibly so guards can maintain complete control while remaining behind the prisoner so he cannot butt, spit or otherwise assault them and can be easily maneuvered to place and pin against a wall. During such escorts guards are to remain behind and to the side of the prisoner.

I was “escorted” in this manner from the cage to a doorway leading into the unit. The door was closed and locked. I was walked up to the door at which time the guard operating the audio video camera took the camera off of me. Adams then quickly stepped directly in front of me and in a low voice threatened to “fuck [me] up”. At that point he, claiming I attempted to head butt him, grabbed and proceeded to forcefully rip out handsful of my hair from the front and left side of my head. I never did, indeed I could not, resist, as the other guards shoved me face-first into and held me pinned against the locked door.

As Adams ripped out my hair I repeatedly stated so the camera could record it that he was ripping out my hair for no reason which he continued to do.

After he completely ripped out an area of hair about 3″ x 7″, they then threw me sideways to the ground and piled on top of me. I was at all times handcuffed behind my back and shackled at the ankles.

After several moments I was physically lifted from the ground, and observed a large mass of my ripped out hair lying on the ground where I’d been previously standing. I repeatedly asked that it be filmed showing how much hair was torn out and dropped right where I’d stood previously pinned securely against the door, before some four guards, including Adams threw me to the ground unresisting. They refused to film it.

I was then taken into the unit’s hallway, made to kneel, then stripped completely naked in direct presence of a female nurse, which I protested as an illegal and unwarranted cross-gender strip search. I was then, because verbally protesting the assault and cross-gender strip search, chained up in handcuffs and shackles inside a cell ‘til the next day. Guards claimed my protests were perceived as “threats”.

Staged Investigation

On December 15, 2011, I was taken to the prison’s video-court area to meet with Johnny Acosta, an investigator from the Virginia Department of Correction’s Inspector General’s office, a.k.a. Internal Affairs Unit. The very same office with whom Adams had worked for years covering up abuses at the prison.

Acosta stated he was there to investigate the December 12th incident. I recognized his appearance to be a swift official move at damage control, to extract a statement from me that might be used later against me, and to formally rationalize the assault to counter or answer any outside protests likely to follow. According to sources, news of the attack was already circulating on the outside.

In addition to the fact that Acosta is a VDOC employee himself and his office routinely worked with Adams on “investigations” at Red Onion that always absolve abusive guards of wrongdoing, Acosta himself has a bit of baggage that further renders an “objective” investigation by him dubious at best, which I’ll detail below under a separate heading.

Prior to “interviewing” me, Acosta showed me a box containing what he conceded to be “a lot of hair”. It looked to be all of my ripped out hair. He had a guard take still photographs and videotape of my head and scalp where the hair was torn out, noting numerous bald patches across the area – a lot of my hair had broken off near the scalp, other portions of it was pulled out from the roots.

Acosta animatedly showed me a pair of leg shackles which he said the guards claimed were the ones I was wearing during the assault. He promptly demonstrated several times that the shackles had a faulty locking mechanism, by locking them then yanking them back open. He repeated over and over that the guards claimed I’d “gotten out of the shackles” apparently as their justification for throwing me to the ground after I was securely pinned against the door.

I told him I believed the guards were lying since I didn’t recall the shackles coming off during the attack. I pointed out that the shackles had a prison identification number on them, and suggested that he check the equipment logs from the control booth in the unit where the attack occurred, to see whether the number on the shackles actually matched ones kept in that control booth. This because a daily record is kept for all equipment kept and checked in and out of each building’s control booth. If the malfunctioning shackles he had were actually ones I’d worn on December 12th, the unit logs would show their being assigned by number to that booth and when and if they were checked out that day, and by whom. He reacted very defensively to my suggestion as though it were an absurd proposal. He stated emphatically that he’d make no such inspection, commented that I was “very observant” for having taken notice of the identification number on the shackles, then quickly changed the subject. This suggested he knew the faulty shackles may in fact not have been the ones I’d worn on December 12th. I then told him I’d submit to a polygraph test on the incident and the fact that the shackles hadn’t come off. I asked him to ask each guard would they do the same and document their reply. He said he would. I don’t believe him.

He then gave several scenarios to “explain” how my hair had possibly “fallen” out, several of them patently ignorant, racist stereotypes, often heard to disparage Black/ New Afrikan culture. First he suggested I may have pulled the hair out myself and had it “sitting” atop my head before the incident occurred. He abandoned that line when I pointed out he had extensive video footage of me leading up to the attack which showed my hair firmly attached to my head at close range. Then he suggested that dreadlocks are dryrotted hair that easily falls out. I explained and demonstrated to him how absurd this was and racist in its implications. He also claimed he’d heard dreadlocks are bound together by dirt and filth and are worn by people who don’t wash their hair. He ended in admitting neither account could be true since he’d filmed, photographed and examined my scalp and hair and found them “very clean” and “healthy”, showing no evidence of dirt nor even dandruff, nor was there any foul odor to my hair and scalp. I pointed out that dreadlocks are actually strong like rope consisting of not only hair still attached at the root but also the shedded hair that most people comb or brush out. So they are thicker and more dense than even plaits. He acted not to comprehend how they form. I explained very simply that Black people’s hair is of a thick tough texture that naturally forms into small tight curls. If left alone it will entangle into thick tight masses, which separate into cords called dreadlocks. That nothing has to be done to make it do this, although some people use cosmetic methods (which I don’t) to make dreadlocks form quicker than the many months it takes them to begin to form naturally, or to make them all a uniform small size. My dreadlocks were/are naturally formed and range in thickness, some several inches thick. I added that I wash my hair at least bi-weekly and take care to keep lint and other foreign matter out of it. Acosta, a white male, wasn’t secretive about his personal dislike of dreadlocks, expressing that because I wear them “it’s obvious you don’t care how your hair looks”.

He conceded a great deal of force was needed to rip out as much of my hair as was in the box. And it was difficult to imagine that level of force being justified under the circumstances of December 12th, even if I did attempt to butt Adams as they’d alleged. He avoided explaining why Adams would step so closely and directly in front of me, given the security requirements governing remaining behind prisoners being escorted, specifically to avoid any such potential danger. Acosta admitted despite what they claimed I did, the force used could still only be such as was needed to control the situation and no more. That if I were pinned to the door, the hair pulling and multiple guards throwing me to the ground were grossly excessive. He also admitted that as I’d observed just before Adams attacked me, the guard operating the camera took it off me so it didn’t film when Adams stepped in front of me and ripped out my hair.

Acosta didn’t film nor have a nurse check my shoulder and collarbone which I informed him had been dislocated when I was thrown to the ground and piled upon, nor other reported injuries.

The interview statement he prepared seemed focused on constructing the incident in a way that could be used to corroborate the guards’ false version of events, and to leave leeway for further “adjustments” in their story. But Acosta did admit knowing Adams personally disliked me, which he countered by expressing several times how he “couldn’t help” commenting that I come across as an extremely likeable and intelligent person. Also that he saw me as someone willing to put his own safety in jeopardy to try to help and expose others being abused. He didn’t record any of this however. I declined to sign the statement and again requested a polygraph test.

Acosta, Himself A Broken Victim of The System He Serves

Acosta told me he was selected to conduct the investigation because his superiors felt he was the only agent I’d talk to. This because a decade ago an investigation by him led to three ranking guards who’d beaten a prisoner at Wallens Ridge being prosecuted. But the system turned on him, and the 3 guards were all acquitted in a scheme that saw the whole staff body at Wallens Ridge come together to exonerate the 3, and made Acosta the target of a subsequent lawsuit by the guards. I was confined at Wallens Ridge during that time and followed the entire drama. An experience it’s highly likely he’d be unwilling to repeat. Halfway through the interview I reminded him of his experience. He was visibly pained by the memory.

Here’s what occurred:

During 2001 a Black prisoner, last name Plummer, was brutally beaten by several guards at Wallens Ridge. Wallens Ridge is located a few miles up the road from Red Onion and employs guards drawn from the same rural communities as Red Onion. Both prisons have shared notoriety for racism and abuse. Indeed, a documentary film called “Up The Ridge” was made about the abuses at Wallens Ridge.

Acosta was called in to investigate the attack. His investigation concluded that three ranking guards had beaten Plummer. They being Captain Isaac Hockett, Lieutenant Jeffrey Compton and Sergeant Matthew Hamilton. They were criminally indicted and put on trial. Regularly appearing on the local news these three guards were featured tearfully professing their innocence, while the prisoners were collectively demeaned. This to win local sympathy for the guards and provoke animosity towards the prisoners.

Then came the real scheme.

The guards’ attorneys had the judge order that the jury be allowed to tour the prison under criminal procedure that entitles the trier to view the crime scene. Wallens Ridge’s entire staff body closed ranks to give the jury an experience they’d not soon forget, to demonize the prisoners as beasts who posed mortal danger to the guards, thus justifying the violence used by the three ‘well-intentioned’ local good ol’ boys on Plummer. The plan quite literally was to terrorize the jury.

Almost an entire housing unit was emptied out of prisoners a few days before the scheduled jury tour. Wallens Ridge officials hand-picked a group of flunky inmates to move into the unit, whom they’d bribed to act out in front of the jury. Some were “paid” with extra meal trays, one was given a job cleaning showers, others were given extra telephone calls for the month, etc. in exchange for agreeing to create a disturbance for a group that they were told was a “scared straight” tour. They were told to do everything in their means to “scare” the group. All were assured they’d receive no disciplinary charges for misbehavior and should use their imaginations in devising ways to scare them.

Guards announced to everyone at the appointed time when the group was about to come in and to start acting out, which they all did on cue. The shocked judge and jury got a taste of pure pandemonium, with the prisoners doing everything from screaming vulgarities and threats of violence and rape at them, to deafeningly kicking and banging on their doors, to exposing themselves naked and smearing body waste in and on their cells door windows etc.

Staff of all ranks, including the warden Stan Young, went around the prison for weeks recounting and laughing about the scene and the jury’s utter shock, to anyone who’d hear. And they really laughed at how the jury returned to court to quickly acquit all three guards. Many of the guards, nurses and counselors, took great pleasure in mocking how easily they’d manipulated a few toady inmates to help exonerate guards caught red handed for abuse. The day after the jury tour all the prisoners who’d been moved around to stage the disturbance for the jury were placed back in their old cells.

The acquitted guards returned to Wallens Ridge radiating arrogance, and sued Acosta for his “false” investigative findings and causing their “wrongful” prosecution.

As I recounted these events to Acosta he remarked, admitting in a disconsolated tone several times, “I know what they did”, “I know what happened”. He remarked too, “You have a good memory”. I pointed out that all of what they’d done to create the scene to terrorize the jury is in prison records. That their moving numerous prisoners around just before and after the jury tour, and bringing the jury into the very unit where all these conspicuous moves had been made, all to influence the jury was blatant contempt, obstruction of justice, etc. And it involved the entire staff’s participating or knowing about it. One could easily also consult court records to identify and interview the jurors about the experience. He didn’t seem interested to expose or challenge it. The experience obviously took the fight out of him. He looked beaten, often spaced out and glassy-eyed as I described the incident.

So I asked him, how he expected me to have any confidence in his or any other official investigation or anything tangible coming out of it. “Look how an entire prison staff came together to cover up an assault, discredit your findings, protect their corrupt peers, then counterattack you, and it’s obviously affected you deeply”. I pointed out to him. He had no response. “Does it strike you as ironic”, I asked him, “that you’re expecting me to trust your role and intentions when the very guard who assaulted me was himself an investigator just like you?”

Knowing these things, only a fool would put confidence in such a system.

I rest my case.

All power to the people!

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