Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore should denounce the abusive use of five
point restraints at Red Onion State Prison, the state's first super-maximum security prison, Human
Rights Watch said.
In a letter to Governor Gilmore, Human Rights Watch said that Red Onion inmates have been immobilized on their backs in a painful spread-eagle position with their arms, legs, and chest secured by straps as punishment for masturbating in front of female staff or for other minor, nonviolent misbehavior. They have been kept restrained for up to one to two days with infrequent breaks. Many of the restrained inmates have had to urinate on themselves.
"Staff at Red Onion are putting inmates through a degrading and painful ordeal," said Jamie Fellner, associate counsel at Human Rights Watch. "This is yet another flagrant abuse in a facility that has been plagued by misuse of force and human rights violations since it opened."
The U.S. Constitution and international human rights law prohibit corporal punishment. According to widely accepted correctional standards, immobilization in five point restraints is an extreme measure that is warranted only in emergency circumstances, such as when an out-of-control inmate threatens immediate injury to himself or others and other means of restraint are ineffective. If an inmate must be strapped down, it should be for as short a time as possible and with frequent, periodic breaks. In its letter to Governor Gilmore, the New York-based human rights organization reported staff at Red Onion has been ignoring these basic standards.
Many of the inmates restrained at Red Onion were accused of exposing their genitals to female staff or masturbating in front of them. Red Onion records show one such inmate was restrained for 50 hours with only two documented breaks to eat and use the toilet. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, he stated, "When I was strapped down on that bed and after so long I couldn't hold my bladder and urinated on myself. I laid in my own piss, it came all down my chest, was in my head, and I couldn't clean my self up til they let me up…." After such a long period with his arms secured stretched out over his head, when he was released "it felt like if someone were to touch my arm it would snap in two."
Another inmate asserted that being kept in five point restraints for twenty-four hours caused "the shoulder joints and muscles…to burn and ache extremely - many times spasmodically - with the pain reaching unbearable levels in ... a few hours."
Inmate letters indicate the use of five point restraints as punishment has not been limited to instances of masturbation or "flashing" one's genitals at female staff. One inmate, for example, stated that he was strapped down for twenty-four hours because he refused to talk to the warden at his cell front. The warden claimed this conduct was "disruptive behavior."
In its 1999 report, Red Onion State Prison: Super-maximum Security Confinement in Virginia, Human Rights Watch documented excessive and malicious use of force by prison staff and reported inmate claims that staff placed them in five point restraints as retaliation or punishment for misbehavior.
In May this year, Human Rights Watch began receiving a new surge of inmate complaints about the use of five point restraints. The organization wrote to Warden Page True in June to inquire about the facility's policy and practice regarding five point restraints. The warden forwarded the letter to Director of the Department of Corrections, Ronald Angelone for response. Human Rights Watch subsequently wrote to Mr. Angelone directly and placed calls to his office. He has never responded.
"It is apparent the Virginia Department of Corrections turns a deaf ear to well-founded concerns about human rights violations at Red Onion State Prison," said Fellner. "It is time for the governor to act to ensure Virginia's inmates are not subjected to human rights violations."
Human Rights Watch's letter to Governor Jim Gilmore is available on-line at https://www.hrw.org/press/2000/12/virginia-ltr.htm. The Human Rights Watch report Red Onion State Prison: Super-maximum Security in Virginia, is available on-line at https://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/redonion/.