Inside the Panopticon

APV calls on the Virginia Department of Corrections, the Governor and the General Assembly to begin an immediate investigation into conditions at Red Onion State Prison.

The Alliance for Progressive Values wishes to acknowledge and highlight the ongoing prisoner hunger strike which began this weekend at the Red Onion SuperMax facility in Wise County. SuperMax prisons are by definition grim places. They are designed to  house individuals who are considered dangerous to the staff and other prisoners as well as the public. Many of these prisoners suffer from mental illness and have histories of anti-social behavior and violence. Clearly the job of guarding and administering such a population is difficult, and at times trying.

BUT, we as a society have chosen to take on the responsibility that goes with the right we reserve to incarcerate. It is incumbent on us to house and care for these individuals in a way that is fundamentally humane and that acknowledges their basic rights as human beings, not merely in a way that satisfies particular rules, but in a way that reflects on us as a people, and how we choose to treat a despised and powerless segment of society.

On May 21st, prisoners in two segregation pods began a hunger strike in protest of the conditions at Red Onion. After over a decade in existence, Red Onion continues to have serious problems including the murder of a prisoner in custody and claims of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of guards. The prisoners’ list of grievances casts a wan light on an institution that clearly needs better oversight. APV calls on the Virginia Department of Corrections, the Governor and the General  Assembly to begin an immediate investigation into conditions at Red Onion. We also council that third parties be part of this investigation and that they include groups that speak for prisoners. Issues that should be addressed in such an investigation include:

• Claims of ongoing abuse and violence directed at prisoners from guards.

• The current practice of indefinite segregation and isolation as a means of punishment. Indefinite solitary confinement is both inhumane and counterproductive as a means of discipline.

• An end to the caging of prisoners in stacked cells. This is deeply degrading to the inmates and should be a cause of shame to the Commonwealth.

• Apparent problems with the grievance system and the introduction of a better system to mediate problems between prisoners and staff.

• Investigation into the system for feeding prisoners, cleaning cells and other basic aspects of how Red Onion is run on a day-to-day basis.

• The continued poor communications between administration and inmates.

Invariably, we will be told that these are the worst of the worst, that they are getting exactly what they deserve and that we on the outside have no idea what goes on behind those prison walls. BUT many of the men now behind bars at Red Onion will one day be released. Many of them were originally convicted of lesser crimes and found their way to Red Onion because of conduct issues. From the troubling reports that have seeped out over the years and these new complaints from the inmates, it appears that whatever ameliorating effects incarceration might once have been thought to have, nothing of the kind is occurring here. Instead we have a correction system that, in its zeal to punish and control, is in fact helping to create potential monsters that eventually will be  returned to their communities, angry, hardened and often further and more deeply disturbed by their stay in prison. It best serves us as a society to treat these individuals with enough respect and dignity while they are in our power, that when they emerge, they are not in fact worse people than when they went in. Below are the demands of the ROSP  Hunger Strike.

Ten Demands of ROSP Hunger Strikers:

We (Prisoners at Red Onion State Prison) demand the right to an adequate standard of living while in the custody of the state!

1. We demand fully cooked food, and access to a better quality of fresh fruit and vegetables. In addition, we demand increased portions on our trays, which allows us to meet our basic nutritional needs as defined by VDOC regulations.

2. We demand that every prisoner at ROSP have unrestricted access to complaint and grievance forms and other paperwork we may request.

3. We demand better communication between prisoners and higher-ranking guards. Presently higher-ranking guards invariably take the lower-ranking guards’ side in disputes between guards and prisoners, forcing the prisoner to act out in order to be heard. We demand that higher-ranking guards take prisoner complaints and grievances into consideration without prejudice.

4. We demand an end to torture in the form of indefinite segregation through the implementation of a fair and transparent process whereby prisoners can earn the right to be released from segregation. We demand that prison officials completely adhere to the security point system, insuring that prisoners are transferred to institutions that correspond with their particular security level.

5. We demand the right to an adequate standard of living, including access to quality materials that we may use to clean our own cells. Presently, we are forced to clean our entire cell, including the inside of our toilets, with a single sponge and our bare hands. This is unsanitary and promotes the spread of disease-carrying bacteria.

6. We demand the right to have 3rd party neutral observers visit and document the condition of the prison to ensure an end to the corruption amongst prison officials and widespread human rights abuses of prisoners. Internal Affairs and Prison Administrator’s monitoring of prison conditions have not alleviated the dangerous circumstances we are living under while in custody of the state which include, but are not limited to: the threat of undue physical aggression by guards, sexual abuse and retaliatory measures, which violate prison policies and our human rights.

7. We demand to be informed of any and all changes to VDOC/IOP policies as soon as these changes are made.

8. We demand the right to adequate medical care. Our right to medical care is guaranteed under the eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and thus the deliberate indifference of prison officials to our medical needs constitutes a violation of our constitutional rights. In particular, the toothpaste we are forced to purchase in the prison is a danger to our dental health and causes widespread gum disease and associated illnesses.

9. We demand our right as enumerated through VDOC policy, to a monthly haircut. Presently, we have been denied haircuts for nearly three months. We also demand to have our razors changed out on a weekly basis. The current practice of changing out the razors every three weeks leaves prisoners exposed to the risk of  dangerous infections and injury.

10. We demand that there be no reprisals for any of the participants in the Hunger Strike. We are simply organizing in the interest of more humane living conditions.

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