[Pnews] At Virginia's Supermax Prisons, Isolation and Abuse Persist Despite Reforms

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Aug 4 10:59:35 EDT 2016


  At Virginia's Supermax Prisons, Isolation and Abuse Persist Despite

    Katie Rose Quandt and Jack Denton

    August 4, 2016

Red Onion State Prison, a supermax complex in the southwest corner of 
Virginia near the Kentucky border, has long had a reputation as one of 
the harshest prisons in the nation. So when in 2011 the Virginia 
Department of Corrections (VADOC) announced it was initiating major 
reforms at Red Onion and nearby Wallens Ridge State Prison, the news was 
applauded by officials and advocates alike.

At the heart of the reforms was the new Administrative Segregation 
Step-Down Program 
<https://www.slcatlanta.org/STAR/2013documents/VA_Step_Down.pdf>, which 
aimed to provide a path for men to work their way out of solitary 
confinement and back into the general prison population. After five 
years, the VADOC reported it had successfully reduced the segregated 
<http://vadoc.virginia.gov/news/press-releases/16mar3_DOJ.shtm> of its 
two supermax prisons by 72 percent, and decreased the grievances filed 
by men at Red Onion by 71 percent.

VADOC’s reported solitary reduction has been celebrated not only by the 
department itself, but also by state and even federal officials. In a 
2013 op-ed in the /Washington Post/ 
State Delegate Patrick Hope and State Senator Adam Ebbin — who pushed 
for the reforms — praised Virginia’s “dramatic turnaround in philosophy 
and treatment of prisoners in solitary confinement.” Virginia Governor 
Terry McAuliffe said the Step-Down program shows Virginia “to be at the 
forefront of prison reform and re-entry efforts.” The program was 
by the Southern Legislative Conference — a 15-member council of state 
governments — as a “unique, creative and effective approach,” and 
highlighted as a case study 
<https://www.justice.gov/dag/file/815551/download> in the U.S. 
Department of Justice’s January 2016 report on solitary confinement.

There can be no doubt that some of the men held at Red Onion and Wallens 
Ridge have managed to escape long-term solitary confinement by following 
the path set out by the Step-Down program. Yet a deeper look at the 
program, and at conditions at the two prisons, suggests that the extent 
of the reforms has been overstated.

*Behind the Numbers*

In press releases 
<http://vadoc.virginia.gov/news/press-releases/16mar3_DOJ.shtm> and in 
correspondence with Solitary Watch, VADOC repeatedly offers the same 
statistic: There were 511 individuals in long term administrative 
segregation in 2011, and by 2016 all but 84 of them had completed the 
program and transitioned to general population housing. While 427 people 
working their way out of segregation is certainly a positive 
development, VADOC’s choice of statistics leaves two questions 
unanswered: How many people are actually housed in long-term solitary 
(not just counting those who have been there since 2011) and what are 
their lives like?

After pressing VADOC, Solitary Watch received further clarification on 
the first question from Community Relations Coordinator Greg Carter, who 
said in July there were 242 people in various forms of segregation in 
Red Onion and Wallens Ridge. While this is still an improvement from the 
511 in 2011, it is much higher than the 84 repeatedly cited by VADOC.

What’s more, men housed in segregation in Red Onion and Wallens Ridge 
say they continue to suffer cruel and inhumane treatment.

This inconsistency illustrates a major pitfall involved with solitary 
reform: Reported numbers can be misleading, and often don’t tell the 
whole story. This is not a problem unique to Virginia. In states like 
New York 
and Colorado <http://solitarywatch.com/2016/04/29/opening-the-door/> as 
well, reforms have been less extensive than advertised, in part because 
corrections departments have reported people as “out” of segregation who 
are in fact still in solitary-like conditions.

Sometimes the confusing or conflicting information is based on 
terminology. One week before Greg Carter told Solitary Watch that 242 
people remain in segregation, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and 
Homeland Security Brian Moran assured the signers of an ACLU of Virginia 
petition that “VADOC does not utilize solitary confinement, which is 
defined as the isolation of offenders with no human contact.” He said 
the state had previously used something called “administrative 
segregation,” and currently uses “restrictive housing,” but that both 
allow for communication with staff and other offenders.

Gay Gardner of Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) a religious 
coalition that opposes long-term solitary, said Moran’s response is 
typical of VADOC. She says the department has always denied that it uses 
solitary confinement, and that this is not the first time it has changed 
its labels for various types of segregation. “What concerns us is 
confining people to their cells for 23 or 24 hours a day, whatever they 
choose to call that,” Gardner wrote in an email to advocates. She said 
the claim that all men incarcerated at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge have 
human contact “defies credulity,” adding, “That can be true only if they 
have a different definition of ‘contact’ than most normal people do.”

*No Way Out*

VADOC added a host of complex classifications and labels when it 
introduced the Step-Down program in 2011. The mindboggling flowchart 
that appears at left, which is published in an official Virginia 
corrections document 
demonstrates the ways in which some men may work their way — over many 
years — back into general population, while many others languish in 
official-sounding classifications that are nothing more than the same 
old solitary.

Under VADOC’s new Step-Down model, those in segregation are placed on 
one of two tracks: Special Management (SM) for those who pose a lower 
risk, and Intensive Management (IM) for those considered more dangerous. 
According to prison documents 
and VADOC’s response to Solitary Watch, those who advance down the IM 
track can never re-enter the general prison population and must remain — 
for the rest of their sentences — in a “closed pod” where they spend 23 
hours a day locked in a cell.

Carter told Solitary Watch that there are currently 86 people on the IM 
track, 34 of whom have advanced as far as they can to Level-6 Closed 
Pod. There is no opportunity for these 34 men to advance to a lower 
security, and they are ineligible to request reclassification from IM to SM.

People can be placed in IM 
<https://d3gn0r3afghep.cloudfront.net/foia_files/RHR_Step-Down_Program_Part_2.pdf> not 
only for having a violent history, but also for having ever attempted a 
“serious and planned” escape, or for having a history of “high profile 
crimes and/or significant media attention, who VADOC says are puts them 
“in danger from other offenders due to their notoriety.”

Peter Mukuria is one of several men who wrote to IAHR from a seemingly 
never-ending stint in segregation. He says he ended up in seg after a 
fight with another prisoner at Sussex I State Prison in 2012, to which 
13 guards responded. According to Mukuria, the group of guards 
restrained the other man and began kicking, punching, and spraying him 
with pepper spray. In an attempt to stop the beating, Mukuria says he 
attacked one of the guards, earning himself an indictment of “aggravated 
malicious wounding” of a corrections officer and reclassification to 
segregation, where he was assigned to the Intensive Management (IM) track.

 From his Closed Pod cell, Peter Mukuria questioned the logic behind the 
IM classification — that some prisoners are too dangerous to ever return 
to general population, even after completing programming and remaining 
infraction-free for years. “All prisoners in the supermaxes have a past 
history of violent crimes!” he wrote. “If that’s a justification for IM, 
then all of us would be there.”

A December 2015 petition written by former Red Onion prisoner Kelvin 
“Khaysi” Canada (who has since been transferred out of state) and signed 
by 74 others 
states that D6-Pod (another name for IM Closed Pod) is classified as 
general population, but “operationally it’s synonymous to segregation. 
The only difference between D6-Pod and actual segregation is that D6-Pod 
prisoners can now have contact visits, but they have to be shackled to a 
security chair for the duration of this contact visit.” He added that 
individuals held at this level spend 23 hours a day in their cells, with 
one hour of recreation in a “dog cage.”

Mukuria’s and Canada’s descriptions line up with official VADOC 
which state that “IM offenders in Level 6 will continue to be managed 
per Special Housing Guidelines policy… to include single celled housing, 
segregated recreation, and out of cell shackles except for the pod 
workers.” Canada wrote that “IM status… and D6-Pod is nothing but a de 
facto long-term segregation program.”

D6-Pod is not the only category of long-term solitary where people in 
Virginia get stuck as they attempt to “step down” out of segregation. 
There are also long-term categories 
for men who move from the SM track into protective custody (called 
Secured Allied Management Pod, or SAM), and a special pod for people who 
repeatedly commit minor violations with the goal of staying in 
segregation (called Secure Integrated Pod, or SIP). Men in these pods 
live in single-celled housing with meals eaten in cell.

*Stepping Down and Slipping Up*

Even the lucky ones who make it into the Step-Down program struggle to 
work their way back to general population.

Canada’s petition alleges that participants in the middle of the 
Step-Down program are frequently reclassified back to Segregation Level 
0 security for “vindictive or retaliatory reasons without giving that 
prisoner a due process hearing to challenge his status reduction.” He 
wrote that this practice “keeps recycling prisoners… through this 
program over, and over, and over again,” preventing some men from making 
any real progress “for years and years with no end, which is nothing but 
de facto/ long-term segregation.”

Kevin Snodgrass reports getting caught in just such a cycle of progress 
and setbacks after his placement in Red Onion solitary confinement in 
2013. On at least two occasions, he has spent months working through a 
required set of seven journals called the Challenge Series and entered 
the Step-Down program, only to get bumped back to level 0 of segregation 
for infractions. He alleges these setbacks are retaliation for filing 
grievances. Each time he moves backwards, he has to re-complete the 
entire Challenge Series. In May, his counselor gave him paperwork 
listing his goal year for reintegration into the general prison 
population as 2025.

Snodgrass has brought several lawsuits against VADOC and its staff. In 
one suit from 2014, he alleged that staff told him he needed to complete 
the final two books of the Challenge Series before he could be released 
from segregation, but then took more than 100 days 
to provide him with the books. That case was dismissed in the US 
District Court of the Western District of Virginia, with the judge 
determining that Snodgrass’ conditions were not atypical enough to 
qualify as “significant hardship.” In the decision, the judge cited 
precedent from a 1997 case that failed to find “significant hardship” 
when prisoners were held in segregation for six months amid “vermin, 
human waste, flooding toilet, excessive heat; and dirty clothing, 
linens, and bedding.” Unless Snodgrass could demonstrate worse 
conditions than that, he wasn’t going to get anywhere in court.

Khaysi Canada says Snodgrass’ experience is a common one, and provided 
IAHR with the names and information of 31 men whom he says have been 
fallen backwards after entering the Step-Down program.

VADOC does not report on the number of people who have been pulled out 
of the Step-Down program due to infractions, but reports that just 15 
<http://vadoc.virginia.gov/news/press-releases/16mar3_DOJ.shtm> who 
completed the program have since returned to segregation.

*Abusive Treatment Continues*

The number of people returning to general population is not the only 
VADOC statistic disputed by those held in segregation in Virginia. VADOC 
also notes a steep reduction in the number of grievances filed by 
incarcerated individuals. Prison officials and reform-minded politicians 
present the numbers as evidence that abuses in Red Onion and Wallens 
Ridge have been curbed significantly, but some of the men held there 
tell a different story.

Peter Mukuria wrote that requests for complaint forms are often met with 
responses like, “You are not going to write me or my officers up,” or 
false promises to bring forms later. Mukuria said that Red Onion Warden 
Earl Barksdale is aware of this “unwritten policy, yet he declines to 
stop this practice,” despite the fact that VADOC policy requires 24 hour 
<https://vadoc.virginia.gov/about/procedures/documents/800/866-1.pdf> to 
emergency grievance forms. Multiple men at Red Onion, including Kevin 
Snodgrass, allege that correctional officers go so far as to retaliate 
against individuals who file complaints by planting knives and homemade 
shanks in cells. Five months after he filed a lawsuit and encouraged 
others to submit grievances, Bradley Maxwell was placed in segregation 
for nearly two years for allegedly punching another prisoner — even 
though the other prisoner denied being attacked.

“The only remedy available to prisoners is to contact their families or 
outside sources and have them contact VADOC Director Harold Clarke’s 
office and complain on their behalf,” Mukuria said. VADOC has not yet 
responded to a request for comment on the these allegations.

And the incarcerated men who wrote to IAHR say there are plenty of 
abuses that are deserving of grievances. Nearly everyone reported 
witnessing or experiencing physical abuse, the capricious withholding of 
recreation time and showers, or manipulation of food. These reports 
contradict praise from the Department of Justice, which wrote that 
<http://vadoc.virginia.gov/news/press-releases/16mar3_DOJ.shtm> “the 
warden, his executive team, and all staff completed training to acquire 
effective communication and strategies to motivate change.” Jack Bush, 
co-developer of Thinking for a Change <http://nicic.gov/t4c>, a 
curriculum used in the Step-Down program, wrote for NPR 
that Red Onion “is in the process of changing from what had been a 
culture of control and punishment into a culture of control and hope. 
Prison officers and counselors are trained to treat prisoners with respect.”

Yet Maxwell says that while in solitary confinement, he was slammed down 
on the floor, his testicles and arms twisted and crushed. All of his 
mail and documents disappeared when he was locked up, he contends. “You 
know, I’m a mentally strong guy,” he wrote, “But I swear, I feel like 
I’m about to lose my mind. I can’t win, I can’t even move.”

William Griffith told IAHR that officers frequently try to trick 
prisoners out of their recreation and showers. “This is done by trying 
to tiptoe through the pod with the recreation and showers list at 5:35 
in the morning when they know that most guys are still asleep,” he 
wrote. “They don’t announce that they are taking up the rec and shower 
list, nor do they stop at your cell door to ask either. They just walk 
past and if you’re not at your door to yell out, they mark you down as 
refusal… If an inmate tries to wake up another inmate, he is punished by 
being deprived of recreation/shower.” Khaysi Canada told IAHR that some 
seriously ill men have not been outside in two years or taken a shower 
in six months.

Many men complained of being underfed while locked in solitary. Kevin 
Snodgrass has lost more than 33 pounds in solitary confinement. DeVaugn 
Hall said he is frequently denied dinner without explanation at Red 
Onion, causing him to lose more than ten pounds in sixty days. “I would 
make a tort claim of cruel and unusual punishment if I knew how,” he wrote.

Canada wrote in his petition that “K9 officers will recklessly usher 
their dogs into a crowd of prisoners where a fight is taking place, and 
permit their dog to attack the wrong prisoner or even the involved 
prisoner who’s lying on the floor and/or ground non-combative.” Griffith 
has heard officers antagonize prisoners with comments like, “You guys 
need to start fighting or something because we don’t have anything to 
do,” or “Our dogs are bored. When are you guys going to give them 
something to sink their teeth into?”

One anonymous man told IAHR that in 2015, while he was in solitary, his 
food slot was opened and he was sprayed in the face with mace by a 
lieutenant and unit manager. They told him if he reported the incident, 
they would “beat my nigger ass.”

Incarcerated men say that lack of transparency contributes to praise of 
the Step-Down program overshadowing the abuses that are still a major 
part of life for prisoners in the Virginia supermaxes.

VADOC told IAHR that a group of DOC executive staff members and 
specialists called the “External Review Team” visits Red Onion twice a 
year to review the status of everyone in the Step Down Program.

“A team does in fact visit Red Onion prison twice a year,” Mukuria 
acknowledged, “but the prisoners that they speak to are handpicked by 
Red Onion officials, so they get an exaggerated, sugar coated version 
about what is really going on.” Darius J. Richards, a long-term Wallens 
Ridge inmate wrote, “When Richmond comes to inspect, they add more to 
the meals to make it seem that this is an everyday meal, but truthfully 
we are being fed like animals.”

*Policy and Practice*

In theory, the Step-Down program is a positive development, and is 
drastically needed: In 2011, more than two-thirds of people in Red Onion 
were held in solitary confinement — often for years or decades straight 
— prompting the Legal Aid Justice Center to request a federal 
in 2012.

Some men truly have used the program to work their way back to general 
population. And those who succeed are, of course, less likely to file 
grievances or write to advocates.

However, it does appear even as some men do manage to “step down” to 
general population, the actual number of people in long-term solitary 
remains much higher than VADOC implies. Sister Beth Davies, a Catholic 
nun and addictions counselor who has spent years assisting both 
prisoners and corrections officers in Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, 
called the Step-Down program “a lot of good press,” but characterized 
the program’s implementation as having strayed from the policy’s intent.

“I do think that the fundamental principles of the [Step-Down] program 
(in its essence) are good and could bring about a pivotal change in the 
lives of those that choose to take it seriously,” wrote William 
Griffith, who is currently incarcerated in Wallens Ridge. However, in 
practice, “to put it bluntly, I think it’s a joke!”

Delegate Patrick Hope told Solitary Watch, “I think we have to take 
every complaint seriously. I’m planning on trying to meet with the 
department soon and try get some answers.” However, he emphasized 
VADOC’s claim of a 70 percent drop in solitary confinement at Red Onion 
and Wallens Ridge since 2011, adding “I don’t think that you should 
overlook that they’ve made some significant progress.”

VADOC officials had promised to meet with members of IAHR and other 
advocacy groups, along with state legislators, to discuss concerns about 
the Step-Down program and conditions at the state’s supermax prisons. 
The meeting, scheduled for yesterday, was cancelled with one day’s notice.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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