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Red Onion houses inmates in both “general population” and segregation.8 Regardless of which category an inmate is in, he spends most of the day in a small cell: general population inmates spend about 140 out of 168 hours in a week confined to their cells; segregation inmates spend 162½ hours so confined. Inmates in general population are held two to a cell.9 In segregation they are single-celled.

The cells at Red Onion contain steel slabs with a thin mattress for a bed; a steel desk and shelf and a toilet/sink combination. They have solid metal doors with tray slots for passing food and handcuffing inmates and a piece of glass for viewing. The cells are configured so that inmates cannot see each other from their cells. Communication of sorts is possible by yelling. Each cell has a single narrow window that cannot be opened but which allows some natural light to enter. Windows facing the parking lots of the facility have been treated so inmates cannot see out. Inmates cannot regulate the lights in their cells. The lights shine sixteen hours a day. At night, they are reduced to a dim glow that is, according to inmates, bright enough to read by. The two inmates in each cell in general population share one electrical outlet.

Guards armed with shotguns are stationed inside the perimeter of the prison. There are gunports overlooking the recreation yard and in the housing units. Virginia’s use of firearms is atypical: most states rely “on higher numbers of staff as their primary means of physical control, supplemented by a variety of nonlethal weapons.”10

General Population

Conditions for general population inmates at Red Onion are remarkably harsh and restrictive, far more so than at maximum security facilities. Inmates are stringently limited in their movement, social interaction, access to programs and ability to make ordinary day-to-day choices. Certain aspects of Red Onion are, however, an improvement over supermax prisons elsewhere: inmates are allowed recreation in limited groups and also to eat together.

General population inmates are locked in the cramped cells twenty hours or more a day with another person. Double-celling exacerbates the strain of living in confinement most of the day and increases tension between inmates. Inmates find it difficult to spend most of their waking (and sleeping) hours in close quarters with a stranger.11 The lack of privacy is unrelenting. The men find it humiliating to use the toilet in the presence of another person.12 Double-celling is also inconsistent with the premise that inmates at Red Onion are so dangerous or violent that they cannot be safely confined elsewhere. If they are dangerous, how can it be safe to confine them in a small cell with another person? We do not know if DOC officials screen inmates placed in double cells to reduce the potential for conflict and violence.

Inmates in general population are allowed out of their cells, one housing “pod” at a time, to eat in the mess hall. They are also allowed outside their cells in limited groups for one hour of outside recreation in a bare yard with a basketball hoop and one hour of indoor recreation daily. There is little or no athletic or sports equipment. The recreation yard is supervised by officers armed with shotguns. Inmates are also allowed to leave their cells three times a week for ten-minute showers. The showers do not have curtains or doors; inmates are thus forced to involuntarily expose their genitals to female staff as well as other men when they shower.

Maintaining contact with families is extremely difficult for prisoners at Red Onion. They are allowed two fifteen-minute calls per month if the privilege has not been removed because of misconduct. Telephone calls must be collect and are expensive, posing a financial burden for the mostly low-income families of inmates. Prisoners are allowed four two-hour non-contact visits per month. The amount of visiting time is particularly meager given that most inmates at Red Onion come from areas that are hours away.13 Inmates and their families visit in a small cubicle with a solid glass partition between them; conversation is through an intercom phone. During visits inmates are in leg shackles and waist chain, with one hand free.

Personal property is extremely limited, and only small quantities of reading material are permitted in the cells. Publications are permitted only with prior approval and only if purchased from an inmate’s prison account. A family, for example, cannot give their son a subscription to Time magazine. Prison rejection of reading material is hard to fathom. One inmate has been denied Plowshares newsletter, a Catholic devotional booklet Living Faith, and an alternative newspaper, the New River Free Press. Incoming letters can be of any length, but there is a maximum of ten pages allowed for photocopied enclosures, which restricts an inmate’s ability to receive information and maintain contact with the outside world. 14

Inmates at Red Onion are denied the group and individual programs and activities available in most prisons, even though the DOC’s policies acknowledge the importance of programming at all facilities. According to Division of Institutions Operating Procedure (DOP) 832, programming at Red Onion should “promote inmates’ appropriate in-prison behaviors and coping skills and identify their inappropriate maladaptive behaviors. Programming may have the result of helping inmates develop positive, stable behavior records for eventual transition to a lower level facility.”15 The policy identifies appropriate programming to include anger management, substance abuse, wellness, behavior management, impulse control, and basic academic programming. Seven months after Red Onion opened, most inmates’ days are marked by forced idleness. The DOC told HRW in March that they were working on developing programs.

Currently, the only educational program available to inmates are GED (high school equivalency) courses over the television. There are no group religious services or activities. Religious programs are also, apparently, limited to some television tapes.16 There are no vocational or skill training programs. Indeed, the physical plant of the facility contains no space for classrooms or workshops. Job opportunities are few, e.g., kitchen duty, sweeping housing units, cleaning showers. After seven months, the library is not yet operating.

Red Onion may lack programs because Director of Corrections Ron Angelone is dismissive of rehabilitation: “What are they going to be rehabilitated for? To die gracefully in prison?”17 Such comments may please part of the political spectrum, but they ignore several realities. Many Red Onion inmates will not be dying in prison. According to the Washington Post, one in five are scheduled for release in the next ten years.18 Rehabilitation programs serve the DOC’s mission of promoting safe and orderly prisons. And, finally, rehabilitation is mandated by respect for the fundamental dignity of each inmate—whatever his crime. 19


Segregation is the modern form of solitary confinement; segregated inmates are almost completely deprived of the commonplace incidents and routines of prison life. In theory, administrative segregation is not a punitive measure. In practice, it can only be described as punishing. The more than 20020 segregated inmates at Red Onion live in conditions designed to impose long-term social isolation and restricted environmental stimulation. Their world is austere, cramped and claustrophobic. Security procedures imposed on all inmates in segregation exceed those reasonably necessary for safety; their real purpose may be simply to intimidate and degrade. Prisoners’ minimal physical requirements—food, shelter, clothing, warmth—are met, but little more. The facility offers nothing but bleak isolation to encourage or enable an inmate to return to general population or to enhance his ability to live peaceably once he has.

With minor exceptions, all of a segregated prisoner’s waking hours are circumscribed within the four walls of his cell. He is fed in his cell, the food brought on a tray that is pushed through the door slot. He is allowed to leave his cell to shower three times a week. And he is permitted one hour of out-of-cell recreation five days a week. All the recreation is outside, rain or shine. Inmates are not provided with (or allowed to use their own) gloves or hats in cold weather nor to come inside early if the weather turns bad while they are out. The recreation yard is surrounded by two-story-high concrete walls and covered with a chain link grate. In an important departure from the practice at many super-maximum security facilities, at Red Onion segregated inmates are allowed to spend recreation period together three at a time. This interrupts the otherwise unrelenting isolation. Inmates in segregation are also allowed to leave their cells for visits.

Every time an inmate in segregation leaves his cell he is subjected to extreme security measures. First he must strip, permit a visual search of his body (opening his mouth, lifting his genitals, bending over and spreading his buttocks), and hand his uniform out the food slot to be checked. After dressing, he backs up to the door, extends his hands through the cuff slot and is cuffed. Shackles are then placed on his legs, and a lead is attached. Two officers then escort the inmate to recreation, the shower or wherever he is being taken, one holding the lead and one holding an electronic stun device (an Ultron II) against the inmate’s body. The cuffs and shackles are removed for recreation and showers and then replaced to return the inmate to his cell. These extensive security measures are taken even forinmates with no records of violence and, apparently, will be utilized for however long an inmate is kept in segregation, regardless of his good conduct.21

Nurses employed by a private contractor make rounds in segregation every day, speaking with inmates through the cell doors to determine if medical attention is needed. A visit with a doctor cannot be scheduled unless the nurse decides it is necessary. If a doctor visit is scheduled, the doctor comes to the cell. After a routine search and restraints procedure on the inmate the doctor conducts the examination. At no time are the restraints removed, and the examination is conducted in the presence of guards, precluding any privacy.

The social isolation, the absence of stimulation, that segregated inmates at Red Onion experience is profound. For all but five hours a week they are cut off from all other inmates, unable to see anyone other than staff who bring them their food or provide escort service or the fleeting periodic visits of medical staff or other prison personnel. There are no programs or activities other than the GED course or religious tapes on television. Inmates who are literate can read— if they can obtain books (there is no functioning library yet at the facility). They can write letters. If they are able to afford it, they may purchase a 5" (no bigger) television—which can be taken away for misconduct—and a radio. Their visits are restricted to one visit per week for one hour.

In many super-maximum security facilities across the country, segregated inmates are able to acquire additional privileges and freedoms through periods of good behavior or by completing program requirements (e.g., anger management or substance abuse courses). No such system exists at Red Onion. Inmates who maintain perfectly clear conduct records at Red Onion are subject to the same harsh regime as those who continue to violate disciplinary rules.

Social isolation and confinement in a small space can be physically and mentally dangerous and destructive to the persons subjected to it, particularly if endured for protracted periods.22 Even persons who are mentally healthy can be damaged or incapacitated in segregation and can lose their ability to function in ordinary settings, to govern their behavior and make positive choices, and to interact with other people. Prolonged confinement in isolation can also provoke symptoms usually associated with psychosis or severe disorders— including perceptual distortions and hallucinations, delusional states, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, difficulties with thinking, and panic attacks. Such symptoms can be provoked in healthy personalities, but prisoners who enter segregation with preexisting psychiatric disorders are at even higher risk of suffering psychological deterioration and psychiatric harm. The periods of recreation with other inmates undoubtedly offset the harm somewhat, but to an unknown extent.

Mentally Ill Inmates

Mentally ill inmates should not be confined for prolonged periods in super-maximum security conditions, particularly those that exist in segregation at Red Onion. The conditions of isolation, enforced idleness, surveillanceand control pose serious risks of aggravating their symptoms and precipitating psychiatric decompensation.23 “Although some mentally ill offenders are assaultive and require control measures, much of the regime common to extended control facilities may be unnecessary, and even counterproductive, for this population,” according to the National Institute of Corrections.24

Inmates with serious mental illness are nonetheless sent to Red Onion and are housed both in general population and segregation.25 Due to the DOC’s non-cooperation we do not have reliable figures on the number of mentally ill inmates at the facility. One inmate told us that in his pod of twenty-two men, three were on psychotropic medication, and he thought at least two more acted in ways that, as a lay person, seemed to him to indicate mental health problems.

Proper mental health screening and monitoring are crucial for inmates sent to supermax confinement.26 It is our understanding, however, that no special mental health evaluations are undertaken for each inmate sent to Red Onion. Nor, apparently, is there monitoring that would permit the prompt identification of new or exacerbated mental health problems and timely intervention.

Treatment of mental illness at Red Onion consists primarily of psychotropic medications. Once a week a psychologist checks in on inmates receiving medication. Privacy and confidentiality are nonexistent: the conversation take place at the cell front, with guards and other inmates listening. The visits are generally fleeting, consisting of a question “How are you doing, any problems?”, and then the psychologist is on to the next cell. For inmates in segregation there is no therapy other than medication. Although placement in segregation is for an indefinite period and can last for years, mental health personnel have told inmates that because “this is a behavioral control unit, there is no mental health treatment here.”

8 We understand that the facility is also supposed to have “transition units” but that many of the cells in the transition pods are being used for segregation. 9 The predominant view in the corrections field is that inmates who are so dangerous or disruptive as to require being confined in their cells most of the day should not be double-celled. Virginia, like some other states, has nonetheless used double cells at Red Onion to save expenses. This is ironic, perhaps, given that many question the need for the combined number of supermax beds available at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge. 10 NIC, Supermax Prisons, p.14.

11 Some inmates apparently pass on recreation simply to be able to have some time alone without their cellmates.

12 According to inmates, toilet paper is rationed: two people receive two rolls that must last for seven days. “If you run out you’re out of luck.”

13 It takes eight hours, for example, to drive to Red Onion from Richmond. Roanoke, the closest city, is almost four hours away by car.

14 In other words, an inmate can receive a hundred-page letter, but he cannot receive a one-page letter with fifteen pages of photocopied material enclosed.

15 VA DOC, DOP 832: Programs, August 1, 1998.

16 A Catholic inmate was denied access to a priest and the sacraments because it was deemed a “security risk”.

17 Margaret Edds, “Punishing Crime; ‘Supermaxes’ Deserve Super Scrutiny,” The Virginian-Pilot, January 10, 1999.

18 Craig Timberg, “At Va.’s toughest Prison, Tight controls,” Washington Post, April 18, 1999.

19 The ICCPR requires the “the reform and social readaptation of prisoners” to be the essential aim of any prison system. ICCPR, Article 10(3). According to the Standard Minimum Rules, prison systems “should utilize all the remedial, educational, moral, spiritual, and other forces and forms of assistance which are appropriate and available, and should seek to apply them according to the individual treatment needs of the prisoners.” Standard Minimum Rules, Article 59.

20 We do not have a precise figure for the number of inmates in segregation at Red Onion. We have been told variously that the figure is anywhere from 200 to over 300.

21 In some super-maximum security facilities, security measures are decreased for inmates who demonstrate good conduct over a period of time. Carrying stun devices during routine escort procedures is unusual and violates international standards See Standard Minimum Rules, Article 54 (3), “Except in special circumstances, staff performing duties which bring them into direct contact with prisoners should not be armed. Furthermore, staff should in no circumstances be provided with arms unless they have been trained in their use.”

22 See, e.g.,Human Rights Watch, Cold Storage; Haney, Craig and Mona Lynch, “Regulating Prisons of the Future: A Psychological Analysis of Supermax and Solitary Confinement,” New York University Review of Law & Social Change, XXIII, no. 4 (1997); Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995)(court rules super-maximum security confinement of mentally ill is unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment).

23 International standards provide that mentally ill inmates should e treated in specialized institutions under medical management. Standard Minimum Rules, Article 82 (1).

24 NIC, Supermax Prisons, p. 13. “Extended control facility” is another term for “supermax prison”.

25 DOC policy permits the placement of mentally ill inmates in Level 6 facilities with the exception of inmates with “severe” impairments. We do not know how the DOC defines “severe” in practice.

26 Human Rights Watch, Cold Storage. NIC, Supermax Prisons.

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