December 21, 2023

Voices from Inside Virginia Prisons Show Need for Robust Independent Oversight of State Prisons

            Drawing from correspondence with more than 600 individuals incarcerated in Virginia prisons, Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) has released a report (the “Red Report”) calling for significant staffing and authority for independent oversight of the operations of the Virginia prison system.  The report summarizes 156 stories divided into 16 different categories of abuse ranging from alleged assaults by prison staff to inadequate health care to ineffective and unreliable redress mechanisms. 

            “You can’t walk away after reading this report,” Rabbi Charles Feinberg, Interim Director of IAHR said, “without concluding that the Virginia Department of Corrections desperately needs robust, independent oversight.  June budget legislation took a valuable step in establishing the Office of the Department of Corrections Ombudsman in the Office of the State Inspector General.  That office now needs permanent status, with significant funding and meaningful authority, which we urge the General Assembly and Governor Youngkin to enact this year.”

            The report, based on the authors’ years of correspondence with hundreds of people held in Virginia prisons and efforts to resolve their complaints, reveals that many of them:

-- endure medical conditions requiring costs to the state and resulting in suffering that could be avoided with prompt and effective medical attention; 

-- feel unsafe in Virginia prisons because of the presence of gangs, drugs, and weapons; and/or

-- are held in unsafe or unsanitary conditions, housed in units subject to extreme temperatures and/or lacking access to a nutritionally adequate diet; and that

-- everyone housed in a Virginia prison is at the mercy of prison officials who have the power by accusation to reduce their access to programming, increase their security level, remove them from the general prison population, and reduce their ability to earn credits that can take time off their sentence.” 

“The central problem,” Gay Gardner, one of the authors of the report said, “is that currently every option for appeal or a remedy is within the Department of Corrections.  There is no outside entity that can be relied upon to objectively review complaints.  And time and time again we have seen disciplinary appeals and grievance processes that ignore prisoner complaints – some of which are very detailed – and routinely accept the version of the story presented by prison staff.  It makes for a dysfunctional system that engenders cynicism and anger.” 

 One case cited in the report is from a man at Wallens Ridge State Prison.  He wrote in February 2023: “I just wish my written complaint and my grievance was investigated properly when I filed it.  Everything I was saying was accurate, and they were still just turning it down.  This is real good evidence of why there needs to be an independent grievance office.  [I shouldn’t] have to reach out to you in order for my complaint to be investigated properly.” 

The report notes: “We cannot independently verify the details of [the stories we document]; however, given their number and the similarities in the stories despite coming from different people who often did not know one another, we believe the stories paint a disturbing picture of Virginia prison operations and deserve to be taken seriously.”

            One person housed at St. Brides Correctional Center wrote on April 2, 2022, about the conduct of a correctional officer: “I personally watched him punch an offender in the face while the offender was sitting down simply because the offender questioned him about laundry in a way that Officer S perceived as disrespectful.  It was completely unprovoked, but he was not punished at all.  Instead, he was seen afterwards laughing about it with other officers.  The offender was taken away in handcuffs and has not been seen since.”

The mother of another man at Sussex II wrote on May 15, 2023, to say that her son was stabbed and had staples put in, which weren’t removed until 15 days after they should have been, causing them to have to be removed surgically.  She said an investigator looked at 2 ½ hours of video of her son begging for medical attention after the stabbing, that the officers wouldn’t take him to the medical unit, and that finally a new shift superintendent took him there after her son pleaded with her. 

Click Here to Read the Full Report.

The 44-page report is being shared with members of the Virginia General Assembly.

Solitary Confinement

Virginia corrections officials, through their Step Down Programs at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge Prisons, have implicitly recognized that long-term isolation is harmful and needs to be reduced.  Prisoners, however – including some who have completed the Step-Down Program – and their families have raised some disturbing issues that point to a need for a closer look. Their allegations include that even prisoners who complete the Step-Down Program can be repeatedly placed back in restrictive housing ("sometimes called segregation or solitary confinement) for indefinite periods ranging from 30 days to 6 months or more, following disciplinary charges that are sometimes fabricated or inflated. 

Gay Gardner and Kimberly Jenkins Snodgrass have led IAHR’s work in exposing the human rights abuses at Red Onion, Wallens Ridge, and other Virginia detention facilities. Here is a video in which they describe some of the abuses.

IAHR is working with other advocates to explore how, together, we can address these charges effectively. Learn more about The Virginia Coalition and its work here