There is great potential for misuse of authority and abuse in super-maximum security facilities. Informed and principled leadership and oversight can mitigate these dangers. We call on Virginia to demonstrate its commitment to respect international human rights in the operation of Red Onion. Specifically, we recommend:
1) Use of Force
The governor should establish a committee of experts in the use of force in prisons who are independent of the DOC to review use of force at Red Onion and to make recommendations based on their findings. The review should include an assessment of existing use of force policies, including the advisability and need to have firearms within the prison perimeter; training received by staff in use of force policies; the existence of adequate guidance for staff in appropriate use of force; and the extent to which internal investigation and disciplinary procedures are effective in controlling improper use of force. The committee should also review each incident in which weapons were discharged at Red Onion to ascertain whether the use of force was justified. Results of the independent review should be provided to the DOC, the governor and the legislature and the public.
2) Assignment to Red Onion
The DOC should not subject inmates to more restrictive conditions than is reasonably necessary for their safe, secure and humane confinement. Inmates should not be assigned to Level 6 (super-maximum security confinement) unless they have demonstrated that they are chronically violent or assaultive, present a serious escape risk, have demonstrated a capacity to incite disturbances or otherwise pose a serious and present danger to the orderly operation of a less secure institution. Length of sentence alone should not be the basis for assignment to a Level 6 facility.
Inmates who maintain good conduct for one year (or a shorter fixed period) should be eligible for transfer to a less secure facility absent particularized and serious security concerns. Decisions to retain inmates at Red Onion should be reviewed by central headquarters staff. If an inmate is retained at Red Onion, he should be given the reasons for that decision and told of specific steps he can take to secure a future transfer.
3) Public Reporting
The DOC should produce annually, and make available to the public, a statistical analysis of inmates at Red Onion and their security scores. For all inmates held at Red Onion who do not have the designated security score stipulated in DOC criteria for assignment to a level 6 facility or for whom the discretionary overrides have increased their security level by more than one level, the DOC should provide a detailed explanation of the reasons for placement at Red Onion (with inmate names withheld for privacy reasons).
Specific criteria for placement in segregation at Red Onion should be established and communicated to inmates. Decisions regarding placement in and release from segregation should be reviewed by central administration staff to minimize the potential for arbitrariness and abuse and to demonstrate the seriousness of such placements. After a fixed period of good conduct, e.g. six months, inmates should be released from administrative segregation unless there is a specific finding, based on objective factors and following a hearing, that the inmate continues to constitute a serious danger to prison safety and security.
If inmates are segregated for their own safety, they should be provided the same privileges, programs and activities as general population inmates.
5) Programs, Privileges and Security
The DOC should carefully scrutinize policies regarding programs and privileges and routine security procedures for inmates to determine the extent to which the harsh regimen at Red Onion can be ameliorated withoutjeopardizing legitimate security considerations. It should implement a system of increased programs and privileges and diminished security controls for inmates who maintain good behavior.
Programs should be implemented that will increase the humaneness of confinement at Red Onion and that will promote inmates ability to be placed in a less restrictive facility and to adjust to prison life. Educational, vocational, behavioral, substance abuse, religious and other programming should be instituted consistent with legitimate security purposes.
6) Mental Health
The DOC should establish policies excluding from prolonged confinement in super-maximum security facilities inmates who suffer from serious mental illnesses. It should review the treatment of mentally ill inmates at Red Onion and take necessary steps to ensure they are provided adequate care and that all inmates receive the mental health screening and monitoring that is appropriate in extended control facilities.
7) Staff Issues
Red Onion staff should be trained in and continually reminded of the importance of proper, respectful treatment of inmates. Abusive conduct and displays of racism by staff, including derogatory remarks, should not be tolerated.
8) Public Access
Red Onion should be as accessible to the public as security permits. Policies should be established to grant the press, independent citizen groups and other members of the public ready access to Red Onions warden to discuss conditions at the facility and should facilitate their ability to quickly secure interviews with inmates. Documents reflecting conditions at Red Onion should be readily available to the public, even if disclosure is not required under Virginia law. Information should be withheld only if its release would jeopardize security and with names deleted to protect privacy interests.