Dozens of inmates at Red Onion State Prison, Virginia’s only supermax facility, have been on a hunger strike since Tuesday, May 22, in what supporters say is a protest against inhumane conditions.
The strikers’ demands range from access to basic necessities like fully cooked food and adequate medical services, to an end to indefinite solitary confinement and a transparent grievance process.
Red Onion State Prison, said to house the “worst of the worst,” was built in 1998 during a statewide prison boom that also saw the creation of Wallens Ridge, an identical nearby supermax that was downgraded to maximum-security status following a series of lawsuits.
Since its opening, Red Onion has been plagued by scandals of abuse and torture. By 1999, Human Rights Watch had published a report documenting the harsh, abusive and degrading conditions that still take place today.
As early as Saturday, May 26, Virginia Department of Corrections (VA DOC) spokesman Larry Traylor declared that the hunger strike had ended, saying in a statement, “As of breakfast this morning, there are no inmates on hunger strike. All have now accepted food.”
But a coalition of supporters, calling themselves Solidarity With Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers, are reluctant to believe prison officials, given that it took them four days to even acknowledge the situation. On top of that, a prisoner recently told supporters that hunger strikers were stripped of their clothes by prison guards, who said they wouldn’t get them back until they accepted food.
Cutting Off Communication Channels
Supporters are accusing prison officials of deliberately blocking all forms of communication, making it nearly impossible for outsiders to know what’s actually happening.
After receiving a visit from solidarity activists Sylvia Ryerson and Elizabeth Sanders on Wednesday, May 23, prison striker Pierre Watkins was never returned to his segregation pod. According to his lawyer, Rachael Moshman, he was instead placed in a cellblock with 44 empty units.
Activists view this as an attempt to intimidate strike leaders while cutting off an important channel of communication with the outside. “As far as guys in his pod know, he never even had a visit so he wasn’t able to convey back to them that there is lots of press attention and lots of people on other side supporting them,” said Ryerson.
Sanders and Ryerson attempted to visit Watkins again the following Wednesday, but this time the Warden wouldn’t allow it. Supporters detailed the exchange in a blog post:
Visitors were told that the man was “not eligible to have visitors.” When asked why, Chief Warden Randall Mathena responded, “I can’t tell you at this time … he’s in kind of a limbo situation right now and it wouldn’t be productive for the facility.” The warden went on to say that visitation is a privilege. He said he could not say when visitation would be allowed again, only that the visitors should check back again next week.
The second attempted visit, with a hunger striker not previously visited, was met with the same response. A guard told the visitor that the hunger striker was not eligible for visitation and that they should call ahead next time.
A day later, Watkins was allegedly transferred to another facility. The VA DOC inmate locator briefly listed his location as “Powhatan Reception And Classification Ctr” in State Farm, Virginia, which is now listed as “Currently Not Available.” Supporters believe Watkins is at Colorado’s Denver Reception & Diagnostic Center where Moshman is trying to establish contact.
Red Onion officials would not confirm or deny this and referred all media questions to Larry Traylor, VA DOC director of communications. Traylor did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
Black Urban Prisoners, White Rural Guards
Ryerson and Sanders first heard about the strike from activists who contacted them because of their show on WMMT, a community radio station in central Appalachia where Ryerson works and Sanders volunteers. WMMT Listeners know Ryerson as DJ Sly Rye, host of “Hot 88.7 Hip Hop from the Hill Top,” which WMMT’s web site describes as one of just two hip hop shows “broadcasting from the coalfields of Central Appalachia.” During the program – which reaches eight of the regions prisons, including Red Onion – family and friends of inmates can call in and record messages of support. The messages are aired on the following program, “Calls From Home,” for prisoners to hear.
Supporters like Ryerson and Sanders argue that the show serves as a counter to the racial tensions that have been built into the system. While black men from the urban centers of Richmond and Northern Virginia account for the majority of inmates, they are at the mercy of rural white prison guards.
“Most of the people in these prisons are from hundreds if not thousands of miles away, and have no contact with the communities outside these prisons beside the guards,” said Ryerson. “One thing that we try to do with this show is show the men and women incarcerated here in the mountains of Central Appalachia that they have a lot of people in the area that care about them and want to support them.”
Breaking Fingers and Crushing Souls
Meanwhile, supporters are concerned about retaliation against prisoners involved in the strike. “The Tenth demand is no reprisals for people who have organized this, because we fear that once the smoke clears and Red Onion is forgotten, they will be tortured and held in solitary,” argued strike supporter John Tuzcu. “This is not conjecture. This has happened to people like Mac.”
Tuzcu is referring to former Red Onion State Prisoner, John “Mac” Gaskins, who told Truthout, “There is no doubt in my mind that prisoners participating are being punished.” He called the treatment of Pierre Watkins “an old time practice of Red Onion,” where leaders of resistance efforts are isolated as punishment. “Pierre was one of the first guys who called SPARC and said we’re going on strike in two days, here’s our demands,” said Gaskins.
Though officials say that Red Onion houses “the worst of the worst,” most inmates are transferred there from other Virginia facilities for breaking prison rules, sometimes for minor, nonviolent infractions. “I was sent to Red Onion because I had built up somewhat of a reputation as being a freedom fighter in prison and organizing prisoners against corruption of prison officials,” said Gaskins, who was transferred to Red Onion at the age of 26 following an altercation with a prison guard.
“The intimidation begins from moment you get off bus. I was met by 15 guards with shields, helmets and dogs. It was a frightening scene.” Gaskins went on to describe his introduction to the abusive culture at Red Onion:
I was snatched off the bus in shackles. Then they took me inside and began the process of humiliation, a procedure where you have to strip naked and spread your buttock. I refused, so they beat me unconscious, dragged me across the yard naked so other prisoners getting off bus could see that this is what we do to guys who think they’re rebels. I still have scars.
Guards are equipped with stun guns and shotguns that fire rubber pellets, which, Gaskins said, are routinely used to control and punish. “I saw guys get shot in the back. One guy even got his eye shot out,” said Gaskins.
Another method of punishment often dished out to Red Onion prisoners is the finger-bending technique, where fingers are bent back one by one causing some to break. Gaskin told Truthout he once had three fingers broken on his right hand, injuries for which he was denied medical treatment. “They also sometimes squeeze your testicles and try to break your toes,” he added.
But, said Gaskins, a few broken fingers are nothing compared to five-point restraints. According to Amnesty International, inmates at Red Onion are routinely subjected to five-point restraints, a technique where an inmate is stripped and shackled, sometimes for days, to a steel bed by the wrists, ankles, chest and thighs, causing severe pain.
Though the procedure is only supposed to be used for those who are a danger to themselves or others, multiple reports and firsthand accounts, such as Gaskins’, suggest that the restraints are more often used as a form of punishment for petty and minor infractions. Gaskins experience is nearly identical to former Red Onion prisoners who report having been placed in restraints for days at a time without required monitoring by medical staff or bathroom breaks, forcing inmates to defecate on themselves and lie in their own waste.
Furthermore, Gaskins reported being teased by guards during the humiliating and painful procedure. “I had officers put my meal tray inches away from my bed where I couldn’t get to it,” he said. “Every time they walk by, you don’t know if they’re coming to harass or torture you.”
Broken fingers and five-point restraints are just a few of the reasons behind the hunger strikers’ demand to have “3rd party neutral observers visit and document the condition of the prisons to ensure an end to … widespread human rights abuses.”
Solitary Confinement With No End in Sight
Organizing a hunger strike is no easy feat at Red Onion, where over 500 of the 750 inmates are held in isolation, more than at any other Virginia prison. On top of that, as many as 173 of Red Onion’s isolated prisoners have a diagnosed mental illness. That’s why prisoners are demanding an end to indefinite solitary confinement, or segregation, as the VA DOC prefers to call it.
Though Virginia is just one of 44 states that continue to use solitary confinement as way to control and punish, of the 25,000 people held in solitary confinement nationwide, Virginia accounts for 1,800 of them, a rate three times the national average.
Abigail Turner with the Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents 12 Virginia inmates in isolation, told Truthout that most of her clients have suffered from mental illness since early childhood and isolation has only worsened their condition. After decades of study, the majority of legal and medical experts agree that extended periods of isolation can exacerbate and even cause mental illness as well as hallucinations, reduced brain function and suicide.
Gaskins, who spent months in and out of Red Onion isolation, noted, “It’s impossible to live in those conditions for a long time and not be damaged by it. I think people in there for 10 to 15 years slip in and out of insanity. It takes some heavy mental adjustment to live in a box for 23 hours a day without any guarantee of getting out of that box.”
According to a recently published investigation by The Washington Post’s Anita Kumar, Red Onion prisoners are isolated for 23 hours a day in 80-square foot cells They are strip searched, shackled and escorted by two prison guards every time they leave their cells. They are allowed a shower three times a week and time in the recreation unit five times a week, which Gaskins calls a “cage” that closely resembles a dog kennel, adding:
There’s enough room to take maybe three steps. It has a Plexiglas enclosure that gives you the feeling you’re outside. That’s the only natural light you get when you’re outside your unit. They put black paint on the windows inside your unit, so you can’t see outside. You’re totally cutoff from nature or any human contact besides hostile officers.
Interactions are limited to exchanges with prison employees who slide prisoner’s meals through a small food tray slot, though, Turner said, a metal box was recently installed outside the tray slots to prevent these exchanges.
The only other available method of social interaction is through the vents. “We communicate by getting on toilets and talking through the ventilation system,” said Gaskins. “One of my best friends, I didn’t meet him for six or eight months.” Turner told Truthout that one of her clients was talked out of committing suicide through the heating vent by the man above his cell.
It was these conditions that left a group of three Virginia delegates, who toured Red Onion last summer, so disturbed that they wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post decrying the excessive and prolonged use of isolation.
Speaking to Truthout about his experience, Virginia Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) argued that solitary confinement, particularly at Red Onion, amounts to torture. “I think it’s a basic civil rights issue. There is no question in my mind they’re violating the 8th amendment of these people,” argued Hope. “You don’t lose your right against cruel and unusual punishment just because you’re in jail.”
Hope has worked with his fellow legislators to push the VA DOC toward making much needed changes. “We sent a letter to the Department of Justice asking that they investigate Red Onion. We also proposed a bill this year asking that a study be made about Red Onion and our entire prison system, making sure mental health services are available where needed, and coming up with recommendations.”
But the VA DOC has repeatedly refused calls to bring in outside experts, though in March they acknowledged the need for serious changes. Still, said Hope, “They haven’t been specific with us about what those changes are,” adding, “Even if there are changes underway, it’s clearly not evident to the prisoners or they wouldn’t be on a hunger strike.”
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