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In the mid-1990s, as part of a massive prison building effort launched by then-Governor George Allen, the DOC decided to construct two 1,200-bed facilities to house the state’s most dangerous criminals, inmates who require extraordinary security measures. The first of the two identical super-maximum security facilities to come on line, Red Onion State Prison, located in remote Wise County, began accepting inmates in August 1998 and currently holds approximately 1,000.5 Ceremonies to inaugurate its twin, Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, were held on April 9, 1999. Both facilities are Level 6, the most secure in the DOC’s prison system. Little information was ever provided to the public to substantiate the projected existence of 2,400 chronically dangerous inmates in Virginia. The idea of supermax prisons was appealing—or at least tacitly unquestioned—in a “tough on crime” political climate in which parole was abolished and sentences lengthened.

In constructing Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, Virginia participated in a national trend. Across the country, corrections departments have chosen to create special super-maximum security facilities for the confinement of dangerous or disruptive prisoners.

Traditional prisons have had cells or units in which inmates who were repeat or very serious violators of critical institutional rules could be isolated and segregated from the general population. An inmate might besegregated either as punishment following a disciplinary hearing (disciplinary segregation, in Virginia called isolation) or segregated administratively as a management measure for an indefinite period until authorities believed he could be safely returned to general population (administrative segregation). Although administrative segregation ostensibly is not a punitive measure, conditions have been almost invariably as harsh and restrictive as in disciplinary segregation.

Nowadays, segregation of inmates who engage in assaultive, dangerous, disruptive or escape-related or predatory behavior behind bars increasingly takes place in super-maximum security facilities, of which there are thirty-six in the U.S., including two in Virginia. Assignment to these uniquely restrictive facilities is ordinarily not based on the inmate’s underlying offense but on his conduct behind bars. Although conditions and policies vary somewhat from facility to facility, their common characteristics are extreme social isolation, reduced environmental stimulation, scant recreational, vocational, or educational opportunities and extraordinary levels of surveillance and control.

Proliferation of these “supermax” prisons reflects in part the belief of some corrections professionals that they are necessary to prevent serious misconduct by the “worst of the worst” in their inmate population and that concentrating dangerous inmates away from the rest of the prison population makes it possible to provide safer, more secure facilities elsewhere.

But supermax prisons also play a symbolic role. Their highly restrictive nature is appealing in a conservative climate in which retribution is the principal response to crime. Unfortunately, this attitude can make it easy to uncritically embrace harsh conditions and policies that are in fact not justified by legitimate security needs or other penological purposes. It encourages or condones supermax placement of inmates who do not in fact require such restrictive controls for their proper management. It also can promote an indifference or blind eye to abusive conduct and a failure to adequately supervise staff and hold them accountable for abuse.

There is considerable debate even within the corrections profession over the cost, cost-benefit, operating and ethical/moral issues raised by super-maximum security confinement. The constitutionality of supermax isolation and other extreme restrictions remains unclear.6 Super-maximum security confinement also raises important human rights questions.7 Governments must respect the inherent dignity and basic rights of all people, including inmates. The United States has ratified international human rights treaties that are binding on state as well as federal officials. These treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture (CAT), prohibit the abuse of prisoners, including treatment that constitutes torture or is cruel, inhuman or degrading. Additional international documents, including the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Standard Minimum Rules), provide authoritative guidance on how governments may comply with their human rights obligations with regard to prisoners. While super-maximum security confinement does not automatically violate protected human rights, it can if conditions are unnecessarily harsh, if prisoners are unnecessarily subjected to them, or if periods of solitary confinement are unduly long. Deprivations that are disproportionate to reasonable correctional goals are inconsistent with the fundamental touchstone of all human rights—respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings. Physical abuse—e.g. corporal punishment in the form of beatings or unjustified violence—is prohibited in a supermax as in any prison.

5 Seventy of the inmates are from the District of Columbia, pursuant to a contract between the Virginia and District of Columbia departments of corrections. 6 National Institute of Corrections (NIC), Supermax Prisons: Overview and General Considerations, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), April 1999), p.2. The National Institute of Corrections is preparing a publication that will address legal issues raised by super-maximum security facilities. 7 Human Rights Watch is currently researching an analysis of the human rights implications of super-maximum security confinement nationwide. See also: Cold Storage. Human Rights Watch, Cold Storage: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997).

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