When Given A Voice, The Voiceless Speak As One: A Random Survey Confirms Pervasive Racism, Abuse, And Corruption At Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison (2010)

The purpose of this article is to expose in the victims’ own words, the suffering of prisoners confined at Red Onion State Prison, as expressed in their answers to a random questionnaire. This effort is part of a much larger project which I will proceed to explain.

In recent exchanges between a family of activists and myself, it was agreed that the establishment of a Virginia based prisoner support structure is long overdue. This is because there is a great deal of abuse going on in Virginia’s prisons, (Red Onion in particular), as a result of the lack of public oversight and exposure of what is really going on inside the system. Also prisoners have no voice and public relations and anti-prisoner hype operates to alienate the public from any concern for the situation of prisoners. Therefore we decided to start such a group ourselves under the rubric SPARC (Supporting Prisoners and Acting for Radical Change), with the aim of bringing together in active support of Virginia’s prisoners, those people who genuinely care about us, namely our loved ones and supporters.

In support of launching SPARC, and letting others around me know about it, I hand wrote an informal mission statement and a series of questions to be circulated amongst the only prisoners I have means of communicating with. Namely the twenty one men housed in the segregation unit with me. Getting these documents duplicated and into the other’s hands was a struggle in and of itself.

I first attempted to have the unit’s counselor photocopy them, by mixing them in with other legal papers. However in violation of my “right” to legal privacy, the counselor read through my papers, removed the documents I needed copied for circulation and carried them to his boss, who also read them. Both refused to copy them, and only returned them much later when I when raised a bit of a protest about their “holding” my papers.

With a bit of persistence I went another route and managed to get the needed copies made. Next I had to circulate them and get them back. This called for a bit of maneuvering as well, since I am kept isolated from others, and contact between prisoners in segregation is extremely limited. Also staff are forbidden to pass any items between us. But I found a way and my peers also found a way to get their responses back to me. I received prompt responses from most everyone who received them, and enthusiastic support for SPARC.

In all, 18 of the 22 prisoners housed in the unit, responded to the questions. Three prisoners I did not circulate the questionnaire to in the first place, because one does not generally communicate with others, and the other two would likely sabotage efforts to challenge abuse on behalf of officials.

Only one prisoner who received the questionnaire simply didn’t respond. Each prisoner was left to answer the questionnaire in his own words and on his own terms. The unanimity of the responses in identifying abuse and unjust treatment at Red Onion, is stark evidence that the problems are pervasive and that everyone experiences and witnesses the same abuses.

The eighteen men who responded have been housed at Red Onion for periods ranging from two and a half weeks to over a decade. What is most ironic is that many of these 18 men don’t get along or interact with one another, yet almost all spoke with one voice in responding to the questionnaire.
Here is what they had to say:

  • There is definitely a problem with staff assaults on prisoners.
  • Eleven reported suffering unjustified or unprovoked physical assaults by Red Onion staff, six of these incidents occurring over the course of 2010.
  • Nine of them wrote complaints, five of which were deemed unfounded, three had their complaints disappeared or otherwise obstructed.
  • One respondent Ernest Darcus, suffered a brutal assault in the unit on October 21st, 2010, while handcuffed behind his back by two guards who then fabricated disciplinary charges against Darcus to falsely justify and cover up the attack. Thirteen of the eighteen respondents witnessed this assault. Sixteen report witnessing other unprovoked/unjustified staff assaults on other prisoners at Red Onion.

Clearly there is nowhere to turn for help. At Red Onion prisoners are not allowed to complain of having witnessed the abuse of others, and they are never consulted as witnesses when “investigations” are made into abuse complaints by officials. Then there is the problem of racial mistreatment:
The racial composition of the unit is per se problematic. Of the eighteen respondents, 14 are Black, 2 Brown and two are mixed Native American and white. The four who did not respond to or receive the questionnaire are all Black. The racial disparity is striking. This sampling of the racial configuration of Red Onion’s segregation population makes it apparent that something is amiss. There is not a single “white” in the unit, yet the prison’s staff body is almost 100% white.

And this in a state where the general population is 70% white. Red Onion’s staff body is drawn from the racially segregated rural white communities of remote Southwestern Virginia. Most of whom have had no prior exposure to blacks or the culture of urban people of color. It is thus not a surprise that seventeen of the respondents find that Red Onion staff are in their experience predominantly racist: fifteen have experienced racist abuse and fifteen report witnessing such abuse of others. Thirteen observe that racial abuse by staff is frequent.

Seventeen report meals at Red Onion are inadequate and go on to explain that this is due to tiny portions, routinely being served rotten, unripe, contaminated and vermin infested foods etc.

Each of them complains of suffering from constant hunger which the courts have found to constitute torture and corporal punishment.

Fifteen of the respondents know of Red Onion’s investigator, Sergeant Tony Adams, whose duty it is to investigate complaints of abuse etc. All fifteen  have a unanimously negative opinion of and experience with Adams. All of them, including one other who does not even know Adams, find that he abuses his authority against prisoners while covering up and condoning staff abuse. In their own words, they describe Adams as among other things: “very nasty”, “unfair to prisoners”, “morally degraded”, “puts people’s lives in danger”, “puts a gang label on everything [and on] offenders who are not gang members”, “egotistical powerfreak”, “likes to harass people and tamper with your mail”, “oppressive, manipulative, habitual lier”, “racist”, “power struck”, “vindictive towards whoever challenges him”, etc, etc.

Seventeen of the eighteen bear witness to Adam’s placement of false and unproven gang labels on prisoners. All eighteen report suffering on account of being made to live under constant illumination and being unable to control or dim their cell lights. The courts have found such conditions illegal and tantamount to torture.

As the federal courts have stated “there is no penological justification for requiring inmates to suffer physical and psychological harm by living in constant illumination. This practice is unconstitutional.” (Keenan vs Hall, 83 F.3d 1083, 1090 (1996))

Because Red Onion is located in such a remote area, far removed from Virginia’s urban centers, where most of its inmates come from, many are culturally isolated and unable to see their loved ones. For example the ride from Richmond to Red Onion is a sixteen hour round trip. In early 2010 a prisoner’s loved one set up a system at a Richmond church where prisoners at Red Onion could communicate with their loved ones via audio-visual technology. However Red Onion officials deny this option to prisoners who have not gone a year or more without a disciplinary infraction.

Not to mention that many of the infractions written up against us by staff are fabricated, as in the case of the cover up of the  October 21st assault against Ernest Darcus. However any prisoner ( no matter how recently he may have received an infraction), can receive visits at the prison, if his loved ones are capable of making the trip which for most is not possible due to the great distance involved. Seventeen of the eighteen respondents found this practice unfair.

They also recognize that Department of Corrections officials do not wish to see us maintain community and family ties which are statistically proven to make prisoner’s transition back to society easier and greatly reduce recidivism.

Fifteen of the eighteen report their mail being lost or destroyed by prison mail room  clerks and Tony Adams, Nine experience this frequently, eleven have filed written complaints, (therefore creating prior record of the fact of routine mishandling of mail at Red Onion), fourteen say their outside correspondents can attest to and confirm problems with lost or destroyed mail. All eighteen feel Red Onion officials simply do as they please, that they deliberately try to divide and incite prisoners against each other. All also are in favor of more public oversight of Red Onion, and find the procedures for filing grievances, to be unfair, fruitless and a waste of time. Fourteen find Red Onion staff to be generally dishonest and unfair in their treatment of prisoners. Seventeen have negative experiences and impressions of supervisory level Red Onion guards, (Majors, Captains, Lieutenants and sergeants). Thirteen went on to elaborate in their own words, their experience of injustice and abuse at Red Onion.

In every category of abuse, the overwhelming majority of prisoners questioned, report the same experiences of injustice and abuse at Red Onion. This is telling. And this situation prevails because we are kept hidden behind concrete walls and razor wire, and because we are kept without a voice. Officials actively block every means and opportunity for us to state our actual experiences-OUR side of the story. Because they know that what they actually do to us is very different from what they tell the public. And they know that once the public comes to see us as the fellow human beings that we are, not the monsters, animals and mere statistics they dismiss us as, then people on the outside will support us against abuse, and treat us as fellow humans who eat, sleep, bleed, hurt, love and do all the other things humans do-just like them.

We are in need of support and radical change.

All Power to the People!


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