Amnesty International USA Group 159
Arlington, Virginia, USA

What is Virginia Doing to People at Wallens Ridge and Red Onion?

Introduction

Amnesty International is concerned by allegations of physical and psychological abuse against inmates by guards at Wallens Ridge State Prison, a supermaximum ("supermax") security facility in the state of Virginia. While the organization is not in a position to confirm the allegations, it notes that they mirror earlier complaints at Red Onion State Prison, another Virginia supermax facility (see below). It believes that they should be investigated as a matter of urgency and that inmates should be protected from any retaliation by prison guards for having made the allegations.

Press Release

On July 11, 2000, Amnesty International USA issued this press release after Virginia's denial of its request to be allowed to send a research team to Wallens Ridge Supermax to investigate conditions (the request was made by Amnesty's London headquarters on  June 22).

After Prison Stun Gun Death, Virginia Refuses Amnesty International Visit

Amnesty International Demands VA Suspend Electro-Shock Stun Gun Use

(Washington, DC) —On the same day a prisoner was shocked with a stun gun at Wallens Ridge State Prison, after which he lapsed into a coma and died, Virginia prison officials barred Amnesty International researchers from visiting the facility.

In a June 29 incident, inmate Lawrence James Frazier was reportedly shocked repeatedly with a stun gun, lapsed into a coma and subsequently died. In a June 29 letter (received by Amnesty International on July 10), Ron Angelone, Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, refused a request by an Amnesty International delegation to visit both Wallens Ridge and Red Onion "supermax" prisons.

"A prison system that has nothing to hide and is serious about addressing human rights concerns should welcome scrutiny and advice," said Dr. William F.. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. "There are long-standing concerns about misuse of stun guns in Wallens Ridge. That misuse may now have resulted in a death, and urgent scrutiny is required if Virginia is to avoid further tragedies."

Amnesty International, the world's largest human rights organization with more than 1 million members, had sought to investigate allegations of ill treatment of prisoners in Virginia's "supermax" facilities. These allegations include shooting at inmates with rubber pellets, the misuse of stun guns, violent "hazing", and use of excessive force, which if confirmed would constitute breaches of both U.S. law and international standards prohibiting torture and ill treatment.

In a letter to the Virginia Department of Corrections today, Amnesty International stressed the importance of scrutiny of prisons by independent bodies. The research delegation intended to view the facilities first-hand and to obtain the views of staff and senior administrators as well as inmates, regarding conditions in the prisons and the various safeguards in place. In the letter, Javier Zúñiga, Director of Amnesty International's Americas Program, also urged the immediate suspension of electro-shock weapon use in all Virginia prisons pending a full, independent study into their use.

Amnesty International delegations have in recent years been granted permission to visit prisons throughout the United States and in Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Jamaica, Grenada, Trinidad, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa and Russia.

END

Issues

Prisoners allege that the ill-treatment is part of the "hazing", or initiation, of new arrivals at Wallens Ridge, which opened in April 1999. They allege that guards maintain a climate of fear through arbitrary and punitive measures, including random selection of prisoners for beatings at night. They further claim that some inmates have been denied access to medical care, and that others do not request medical care for fear of reprisals. Other alleged abuses include sleep deprivation by keeping the lights on 24 hours a day, and verbal, including racist, abuse and threats of violence.

Background

Since the late 1980s, an increasing number of states have been building supermax facilities, designed for the long-term isolation of prisoners whom the authorities consider to be too dangerous or disruptive to be held in the general population of maximum security prisons. Amnesty International recognizes that it is sometimes necessary to segregate dangerous prisoners, but is concerned that many aspects of the conditions in supermax facilities violate international standards, and in some facilities conditions constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Prisoners typically spend between 22 and 24 hours a day confined to small, solitary cells. Prolonged isolation in conditions of reduced sensory stimulation can cause severe physical and psychological damage.

Electro-shock Weapons

In January 1999, Amnesty International wrote to the Virginia Department of Corrections about the alleged excessive use of electro-shock weapons at the other Virginia supermax facility, Red Onion State Prison, which opened in July 1998 (see Cruelty in Control: The Stun Belt and other Electro-shock Equipment in Law Enforcement (AMR 51/54/99, June 1999, pages 13 and 42; excerpts below). Inmates have allegedly been electro-shocked to intimidate new arrivals, and as punishment for minor infractions of prison rules or verbal insolence.

Amnesty International believes that the portability, ease of use and potential to inflict severe pains without leaving substantial marks on the human body, renders electro-shock stun equipment particularly open to abuse by unscrupulous law enforcement officials. It is calling for the use of all such weapons to be suspended pending the outcome of a rigorous, independent and impartial nationwide inquiry into their use and effects.

Virginia Residents: Please Act

Contact the governor and your legislators. Ask them to
  • live up to their responsibility for the humane confinement of all inmates, even those deemed to be dangerous or disruptive;
  • bring to justice any officials found responsible for ill-treatment or torture in violation of international standards;
  • assure that all prisoners are protected from any form of ill-treatment or retaliation by guards, and have full and continuing access to medical care; and
  • suspend the use of all electro-shock stun equipment pending a full inquiry into their uses and effects.
... from Cruelty in Control: The Stun Belt and other Electro-shock Equipment in Law Enforcement (AMR 51/54/99, June 1999, pages 13 and 42).
Amnesty International's fears about the potential for arbitrary use of the stun belt have been fuelled by disturbing allegations it has received concerning Red Onion State Prison, a supermaximum security facility in Pound, Virginia, which opened in July 1998. It is alleged that the stun belt is being widely used in the prison, and that several inmates have been arbitrarily electro-shocked after their arrival at the prison . Amnesty International wrote to the Virginia Department of Corrections on 27 January 1999 to call for an immediate and thorough investigation into the allegations. Also in January, a Human Rights Watch lawyer interviewed 10 inmates as part of that organization's investigation into allegations of the excessive use of firearms by prison personnel and the incarceration in Red Onion of less-than-supermaximum-security prisoners. During their interviews, all 10 were made to wear a stun belt by the prison authorities as well as being handcuffed and shackled. They had been told that if they stood up the belt would be activated by the guard standing outside the door with the remote control. An 11th prisoner who had asked for an interview changed his mind after learning that he would be made to wear a stun belt.

The vast majority of guards in Red Onion State Prison are white, drawn from the rural part of western Virginia in which the facility is situated. In contrast, some 75 per cent of the inmates are black , many from urban areas. There have been allegations of racist abuse by Red Onion staff against black inmates, some of it coupled with the alleged misuse of electro-shock weapons.

Inmates at the supermaximum security Red Onion State Prison in Pound, Virginia, which opened in July 1998, have alleged widespread excessive force by guards, including with electro-shock weapons. It has been alleged that prisoners have been electro-shocked to intimidate new arrivals and as punishment for minor infractions of prison rules and for verbal insolence. Amnesty International wrote to the Virginia Department of Corrections in January 1999 concerning the alleged excessive use of stun belts and other electro-shock weapons. Amnesty International's concerns have been reinforced following an April 1999 report issued by Human Rights Watch which includes allegations of abuses that organization has received involving tasers and stun guns in Red Onion. These include:

  • an inmate electro-shocked with a taser after he displayed reluctance to strip and permit a visual body search, in the presence of female staff, after his arrival at the prison with other new inmates in September 1998. After the incident, an officer allegedly screamed in the inmate's ear, “Boy, you're at Red Onion now” and then told the other officers to “get that nigger out of here”. According to Human Rights Watch, the prison warden acknowledged that a taser had been used because the inmate hesitated to strip and thus “was failing to obey instructions”;
  • an inmate electro-shocked for refusing to return a paper cup when ordered to;
  • an inmate electro-shocked because he had his arm hanging through the food slot in his cell door and did not remove it fast enough when told to do so;
  • inmates electro-shocked when already handcuffed during cell extractions.

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