Human Rights Abuses at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia

Monday, November 30, 2020

This morning IAHR sent the following letter to Brian Moran, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security in Virginia:

Dear Secretary Moran: 

Interfaith Action for Human Rights is extremely concerned about multiple reports of beatings and harassment of inmates at Wallens Ridge State Prison that we have received over the past several months, including very recently.  Brief descriptions of some of these incidents follow. Time and again, IAHR and others have brought these types of allegations to the attention of the VADOC, to no avail.  We are told that the allegations will be investigated, but neither we nor the prisoners themselves nor their families are ever provided with any information that indicates a serious, thorough, and impartial investigation has actually been conducted.  At most, we receive a reply from Rose Durbin that simply denies the allegations but does not address them specifically. The prisoners and their families receive nothing. Virtually all of these men (and many others) report interference with their ability to use the complaint and grievance procedure to address the abuses they allege.

Jerry Harper #1201006 reported being subjected to prolonged harassment and physical (including sexual) assault by staff because he is a Caucasian Muslim.  VADOC documents show that he was given a disciplinary charge for harming himself after attempting to hang himself.  We raised our concerns about his treatment in messages to VADOC officials in May of this year.  The harassment abated somewhat after that.  However, despite repeated urgings to thoroughly investigate Mr. Harper's allegations, there has been no indication that the VADOC undertook a serious investigation.  More recently, after speaking with a journalist, Mr. Harper was pulled out of his cell to speak to his Unit Manager about a grievance he had filed regarding harassment he had experienced for attempting to pray outdoors during his recreation time.  He states that, on the afternoon of November 20, 2020, he was pressured into withdrawing his grievance.  He fears further retaliation.

Benjamin Forrest Carter #1591524 is in long-term segregation and was recently transferred from Wallens Ridge to Red Onion.  He has reported being severely beaten by guards at Wallens Ridge and during an earlier period at Red Onion.  He claims that he was beaten with belts, maced, kneed in the groin, punched, and called racist epithets, and that guards spit in his food.  He states that he was tormented with an electric belt during his transfer from Red Onion to Wallens Ridge.  He reports that he was deprived of a mattress for two days after arriving at Wallens Ridge, had no change of clothing for three weeks, was deprived of a shower for 41 days, and had empty meal trays put through his slot.  Despite repeated requests, he has been given no ICA documents related to decisions made about his housing status.  Although he has been in "restrictive housing" since January of this year, he has been given no information about the possibility of transitioning to general population.  Upon his recent transfer back to Red Onion, his family reports that he was placed back in the same unit with the officers who had beaten him before, and he was beaten again.

Devon Banks #1405518, according to the reports we have received, became upset on October 25, 2020, about his lack of access to recreation and jumped or climbed down from the top tier in his pod.  He reportedly was subsequently severely beaten by officers, including in the medical unit while cuffed and shackled.  He was placed in isolation immediately after this incident, did not receive medical attention, and was deprived of some of his meals.  He has since been released to general population.  His loved ones report that he has had money removed from his personal account, including $30 for a commissary purchase that he never made and never received.

Mr. D alleges being beaten on camera, sexually assaulted, and starved by staff.  One of these assaults occurred in August 2020, during which his hand was broken.  He states that this attack was witnessed by a nurse who was afraid to intervene.  He was deprived of medical attention for 3 days.  Officers subsequently entered his cell with a shock shield and maced him. He reports being threatened by officers since then and accuses officers of planting knives in prisoners' cells.  He spent more than a year in segregation. 

Mr. X is also in isolation.  On October 21, 2020, he reported being dragged, beaten, maced, and verbally abused.  He expresses fear for his safety and reports having his meals withheld, even though his charts are likely not to reflect this.  After he had tried to reach out to advocates on the outside, he reports that an officer came to his door and said, "Don't even bother with calling those people.  They are nobodies, they can't save you."

Russell Edwards #1189068 had filed complaints about being kept in "restrictive housing"/segregation but was concerned that his complaints were not being processed.  He reports being threatened repeatedly by an officer since July of this year to stop filing complaints.  The officer allegedly stated on one occasion, "“Keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll have my staff shake you down and I’m sure they’ll find a knife in there and then beat your ass for resisting. . ."  The officer coerced him into recanting his complaints in a phone call to his fiancee.

Mr. A reportedly was severely beaten by three or more officers on November 21, 2020.  He was subsequently transferred from Wallens Ridge to Red Onion and was allegedly beaten again after arriving at Red Onion.  We are still trying to learn more; initial reports indicated that he may have initiated the conflict by striking an officer.  Of course, if true, that is unacceptable, but cannot justify the kind of assault by multiple officers that was reported to IAHR.

We believe these reports are sufficiently credible on their face to warrant intervention at the highest levels to ensure there is a serious, thorough, and impartial investigation, including interviews with any and all witnesses and examination of relevant videotape and other evidence.  Any staff found to have engaged in abusive conduct must be held accountable.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely, Rabbi Charles Feinberg

The message above was sent to Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, Deputy Secretary Jae K. Davenport, and State Inspector General Michael Westfall, regarding disturbing accounts of abusive treatment of men incarcerated at Wallens Ridge State Prison. We would be grateful for your help in pressing for appropriate action by state officials. You can do this by directing emails and phone calls to the following officials, using this script as a model (see the IAHR message to Secretary Moran below that for details):
I have been hearing about cases of alleged brutality, harassment, and threats against men incarcerated at Wallens Ridge State Prison. As a Virginia voter, this concerns me greatly. Physical assaults and other forms of racist and degrading treatment of people in our prisons is unacceptable, and there can be no excuse for it. I am aware of too many detailed accounts of abusive treatment to accept being told it doesn't happen. I would like to know what specific steps are being taken to get to the bottom of these allegations and bring to justice any and all VADOC employees who are found responsible for misconduct.
 
Feel free to adapt the message to make it more personal.
 
CONTACT THESE OFFICIALS:
Harold Clarke, Director of Corrections, harold.clarke@vadoc.virginia.gov, 804-887-8080
David Robinson, Deputy Director for Prison Operations, VADOC, david.robinson@vadoc.virginia.gov, 804-887-8078
Paul Haymes, Chief of Special Investigations Unit, VADOC, paul.haymes@vadoc.virginia.gov, 804-887-8285
Melvin Davis, Warden, Wallens Ridge State Prison, melvin.davis@vadoc.virginia.gov, 276-523-3310
Please copy your own state Delegate and Senator or forward your message to them. Ask them to support creation of an independent oversight mechanism for the Department of Corrections.  If you don't know who your legislators are or how to contact them, check here: https://whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov

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