Table Of ContentsNext Page


The treatment of inmates at Red Onion State Prison, Virginia’s first super-maximum security facility, raises serious human rights concerns.1 The Virginia Department of Corrections is responsible for safely and humanely confining all its inmates, even those deemed to be violent, disruptive or to pose other security risks. Like many corrections departments across the country, Virginia’s has endorsed the confinement of purportedly dangerous inmates in extremely restrictive, highly controlled facilities. Absent thoughtful leadership and careful policies, the potential for human rights abuses at such “supermax” facilities is great. At Red Onion, unfortunately, the Virginia Department of Corrections has failed to embrace basic tenets of sound correctional practice and laws protecting inmates from abusive, degrading or cruel treatment:

· The Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) is assigning to Red Onion men who are not the incorrigibly dangerous for whom super-maximum security confinement may be warranted. Inmates who pose no extreme security or safety risk are subjected to unnecessarily restrictive controls and are arbitrarily deprived of the activities and freedoms available ordinarily even in maximum security prisons. In a blatant effort to fill large super-maximum security facilities whose capacity exceeds the state’s needs, officials are apparently planning to dilute even further the criteria for admission to Red Onion and its newly-opened twin, Wallens Ridge State Prison.

· Prison staff use force unnecessarily, excessively, and dangerously. Inmates are fired at with shotguns and have been injured for minor misconduct, non-threatening errors, or just behavior that guards have misinterpreted. These inmate actions should—and in most other prisons would—be handled by staff without weapons. Although physical force is never justifiable as punishment, inmates at Red Onion report staff’s punitive use of electric shock stun devices.

· Conditions at the facility are unnecessarily harsh and degrading. General population inmates are confined in their cells more than twenty hours a day. In segregation, inmates are isolated twenty-three hours a day. All are subjected to remarkable levels of control and forced to live in oppressive and counterproductive idleness, denied educational, behavioral, vocational and work programs and religious services. These conditions exceed reasonable security precautions for inmates who have not engaged in chronically violent or dangerous behavior behind bars.

· Correctional officers and other prison staff threaten inmates with abuse and subject them to racist remarks, derogatory language and other demeaning and harassing conduct. Facility administrators and supervisory staff appear to condone such unprofessional conduct.

It is politically fashionable in many places to disregard mistreatment of inmates and to assume criminals by their conduct have forfeited all claim to public concern. Human Rights Watch (HRW) believes the public—and officials who are its servants—should not tolerate abusive treatment of prisoners solely because they have committed crimes against others. As one inmate at Red Onion wrote to HRW, “I don’t pretend that prisoners are saints. Most can be real idiots, but their idiocy doesn’t justify abuse, physical or mental.”2 We agree. Inmates must be treated withrespect for their dignity as human beings and for their fundamental rights, whatever their crimes. Sound correctional practice mandates such treatment, as it is essential to safe, orderly and humane prisons. But it is also required by international human rights treaties signed by the United States and binding on state as well as federal officials.

Even if it is politically difficult, state officials and elected representatives have a duty not to condone abusive prison conditions. The concerns raised about Red Onion warrant careful investigation and full disclosure. The public should be fully informed about policies and practices at Red Onion—as at any prison—and should be able to subject them to critique and debate. Unfortunately, the DOC uses the walls of Red Onion to keep the public out, as well as prisoners in. It routinely denies the press access to facility staff and provides scant information about practices and policies there.

In March it denied Human Rights Watch permission to tour Red Onion and to interview staff. The DOC claimed that security considerations precluded it from granting Human Rights Watch access to Red Onion. Security, however, has not prevented other state and the federal corrections departments from permitting Human Rights Watch access to their super-maximum security facilities. When pressed to justify his refusal, Director of Corrections Ronald Angelone simply asserted to Human Rights Watch in a telephone conversation that permitting us to tour Red Onion was not in the state’s “best interest.” He insisted that since Red Onion was operated consistent with state and federal law, there was no need for scrutiny by an independent human rights organization. The secretary of public safety, who has authority over the DOC, never responded to our letter of February 22, 1999 requesting reconsideration of Angelone’s decision.

We believe Mr. Angelone interprets the state’s interests too narrowly. As detailed below, there are many aspects of the facility that warrant public concern. Moreover, openness to scrutiny, information-sharing and engaging in informed, constructive discussions about policies and procedures are indispensable to continual improvement of operations in corrections as in any other public endeavor. The unwillingness to let Human Rights Watch tour Red Onion, coupled with the DOC’s notorious reluctance to give the press access to the facility and its inmates,3 suggests the DOC is uncomfortable in letting the public acquire a fuller picture of operations there.

This report reflects our attempt to give the public some of that fuller picture about certain aspects of conditions at Red Onion. Our description is based on communication with inmates and their families, information from the DOC and from press accounts and other public sources. Unfortunately, it is incomplete and despite our best efforts may fail to reflect all conditions accurately, because the DOC has prevented us from directly observing the facility and has also refused to provide some of the information we requested.4

1 Human Rights Watch has reported on prison conditions and assessed the extent to which prisoners’ internationally guaranteed human rights are protected in numerous countries including Brazil, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Japan, Mexico, Poland, South Africa, the former Soviet Union, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Venezuela, among others.

2 Throughout this report, we include information and quotes from the more than thirty inmates whom we have interviewed or from whom we have received written communications. To protect their privacy and to prevent the possibility ofreprisals, we do not attribute information to specific inmates, nor do we identify any of our sources by name. We also do not include the names of individual officers identified by inmates as having engaged in abusive conduct. The purpose of our research into conditions at Red Onion has not been to “name names” or to document in detail individual instances of alleged misconduct by staff but to alert the DOC of the need to take more seriously its obligations to ensure humane conditions through appropriate policies, staff supervision, and internal disciplinary investigations and procedures.

3 There was widespread media attention in Virginia to the DOC’s refusing Human Rights Watch access to Red Onion. Shortly thereafter, the DOC granted a reporter from The Washington Post the opportunity to interview the warden and speak with some inmates there.

4 A Human Rights Watch representative met with Gene Johnson, the DOC’s deputy director of operations, and a representative from the DOC’s legal staff on February 24, 1999. They were unable, however, to give specific answers to many questions about policies and procedures at Red Onion. The DOC responded to an initial document request by passing on a few department-wide policy statements; other information was denied, including a description of use of force policies and principles and a profile of inmates at Red Onion. We have still not received a response to a second request for documents sent on March 17, 1999 to Director Ronald Angelone.

Table Of ContentsNext Page