The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Partners:
  At Va.'s Toughest Prison, Tight Controls

Wallens Ridge, TWP
A guard holding an AK-47 rifle mans one of the two towers outside the double security fence surrounding Wallens Ridge State Prison.
(Robert A. Reeder – The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 1999; Page C1

WISE COUNTY, Va. Slug a cellmate, grab a guard at a Virginia prison, and you'll end up here, locked down for 23 hours a day in the solitary confinement wing of Red Onion State Prison, where they have taken the "corrections" out of the Virginia Corrections Department.

Forget classes, a job in the laundry, lifting weights, playing ball. Even the occasional friendly visit from a grandmother or wife is almost always off limits. And that one hour a day of freedom? Get used to wearing handcuffs and leg shackles while a guard wielding a 50,000-volt stun gun walks you to the shower with bars of its own or the small concrete courtyard for exercise.

And even if you get out of solitary and your day is broken up by trips to the dining hall or a few hours in the day room, there will be a shotgun, loaded with hard rubber pellets, trained on your every move.

"You step out of line, you're going to get shot," says Joseph M. Giarratano, a 41-year-old convicted murderer, clad in a bright orange prison uniform and black canvas shoes without laces. "And that works. ... In the short term, that works."

Virginia prison officials say such severe restrictions are needed to control "the worst of the worst," inmates so dangerous that it's better to forget about rehabilitation and simply warehouse them.

Red Onion, which opened here in August, and Wallens Ridge State Prison, an identical twin that opens in nearby Big Stone Gap this month, are "super-max" prisons, part of a massive prison-building program launched by then-Gov. George Allen (R). His tough-on-crime agenda lengthened sentences, abolished parole and swelled prison populations.

The two super-maxes are designed to hold a combined 2,400 inmates, with about 700 of those in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement cells. Those not in solitary can spend up to several hours a day outside their cells and hold jobs in the kitchen or laundry to earn money. There is no law library, little job training and only one classroom.

While human rights advocates and criminologists blast the lack of rehabilitation efforts, state prison officials say there is little they can do to force rehabilitation on prisoners who have no interest in bettering themselves.

Ronald Angelone, Virginia's tough-talking corrections director, is an advocate of super-max. "It's not a nice place," he says. "And I designed it not to be a nice place."

Many of the inmates are in prison for life, but not all. Corrections Department records show that about 200 one of every five in Red Onion are scheduled for release in the next 10 years. Sixty-six will be 30 or younger; 184 will be 40 or younger.

Giarratano, who was on Virginia's death row until then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) spared his life, says he has found peace through Zen meditation. But he sees the effects of extreme security measures on others, including those who someday will be released.

"They start cracking up. They start acting out," he says, making tiny constricted gestures with his handcuffed hands. "What are they going to do when they get out on the streets?"

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch, a leader in investigating prisons, has been denied tours of Red Onion because of the state's safety concerns. Based on interviews with prisoners, the group claims that racism, excessive violence and inhumane conditions reign inside. State prison officials deny those charges.

Human Rights Watch also contends and prison officials also deny that Virginia and many other states in the super-max building boom are rushing to fill those cells to justify the expense, pulling many less-dangerous inmates like Giarratano into unnecessarily extreme conditions.

Most super-maxes take only those who have misbehaved at other prisons, but Virginia also sends inmates with life sentences to Red Onion. Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch says the policy "is clearly just an effort to fill the prison."

Criminologists are alarmed by the prospect of super-max graduates returning to society.

The only education efforts are literacy and high school equivalency courses offered over closed-circuit television. Job training is limited to skills useful behind bars such as wall painting or picking up trash.

"What no one is talking about," says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, "is what happens down the road when more ex-cons come out with bad attitudes and little skills to wreak havoc on our streets."

Red Onion and Wallens Ridge sit atop mountains in Southwest Virginia coal country, hundreds of miles from Richmond, Northern Virginia and the other urban areas most super-max inmates once called home.

The remoteness visitors sometimes must drive seven or eight hours to get there can fray family ties. But the new prisons have brought an economic spark to this depressed region. Each one cost more than $70 million to build. Between them, they will employ nearly 800 and have combined payrolls of $27 million a year.

For all the complaints about Virginia's new super-max prisons, they seem well equipped to control very dangerous prisoners who might otherwise attack guards or other prisoners or try to escape.

Angelone says it is cheaper and safer to house "the worst of the worst" in Red Onion or Wallens Ridge than in the state's other prisons, which are usually called "correctional facilities."

Those other prisons, once rid of their troublemakers, run better and make rehabilitation there easier, Angelone says. Even the threat of a super-max, he adds, makes inmates elsewhere behave better. Since super-max inmates can return to lower-security prisons in as little as two years given good behavior, Angelone hopes prisoners throughout the system will be scared straight by stories of the prisons' severity.

"You touch an officer, and you're going to Red Onion," he says.

Escape from Red Onion, many prisoners concede, is almost impossible to imagine. Prisoners live in 11-by-8-foot cells with five-inch-wide slits for windows and slots in the 1-inch-thick steel doors for delivering meals or mail.

Inside the prisons, the cells are Spartan. The toilet and sink, with no knobs or handles that could be fashioned into weapons, are a single stainless-steel unit. The desk, beds and a small shelf are mere slabs of steel bolted to the wall. Mattresses and small pillows are thin and plastic.

Guards in a control room open and close all doors with the whoosh and crash that are the unmistakable soundtrack of prison life. And the common areas, also locked from the outside, are watched constantly by guards holding shotguns, trained to fire non-lethal rounds at prisoners who misbehave.

The same is true of the yard, where prisoners who are not in solitary confinement can exercise and chat with other inmates. The only recreation facility is a single basketball court, where crossing one of several red-painted lines draws immediate fire from the gun port above.

Virginia is one of three prison systems in the nation to use firearms behind bars, and they are used at the super-maxes designed to offer clean sight lines for guns far more often than at other prisons. In Red Onion's first nine months, shots have been fired 63 times. Most were warning shots, but 15 involved the pellets called "stinger rounds," which sometimes penetrate the skin.

Federal prisons and most state ones shy away from trying to control inmates with firearms, both because the practice is seen by many as inhumane and because of fears that the guns could fall into the hands of inmates. But Red Onion warden George Deeds says that possibility is remote because the weapons, while aimed through bars into common areas, stay in locked control rooms.

"There's no possible way inmates can get their hands on these weapons," Deeds says, "unless there's a serious mistake."

The perimeters of both prisons are protected by coils of razor wire and double fences with sensors. Guards in two towers, armed with live rounds, watch for escape attempts. A patrol car constantly circles each prison.

"I'm never getting out of prison," says 53-year-old inmate Billy R. Kelly, gaunt, bearded and shackled in three different ways as he speaks with a visitor; he is serving a 72-year sentence for murder. "You have to keep inventing a reason to live every day."

For many others, the thought of leaving prison is not so abstract. Inmate Reginald Yelverton, 30, grew up in Southeast Washington but has been in prison for 12 years on a second-degree murder charge. The D.C. Department of Corrections pays to house 69 prisoners such as Yelverton at Red Onion. He expects to make his first visit to a parole board next year.

"Red Onion," he says, "is very terrible, very racist" a common complaint from African American prisoners such as Yelverton. Though prison officials say they work to fight racism, most of the guards, like most of the population of Southwest Virginia, are white.

Another inmate who can imagine freedom is Robert L. Smith Jr., 29, who also grew up in Washington but was sent to Red Onion for a kidnapping and weapons charge in Fairfax County. Smith says he earned his high school diploma while in another prison and was on his way to early release for good behavior when he threw a punch at an aggressive fellow inmate while on a work detail. Prison officials, who do not reveal disciplinary histories of inmates, sent Smith to Red Onion.

The incident set back his possible release date, but even without parole, his 12-year sentence ends in December 2003, when Smith will be 34.

There is little research to predict what Yelverton, Smith or other prisoners will do once they leave Red Onion. There are at least 30 super-max prisons in the country now, according to a new federal study by Chase Riveland, a former correctional director in Washington state and Colorado. Data on their effectiveness, however, is scant.

"Over the long term," Riveland says, "the jury is really out."

But Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who studies solitary confinement, says super-max prisons may breed more violence as inmates become both emotionally detached and enraged.

"There are some people who react to that deprivation with anger and resentment, and sometimes uncontrollable anger and resentment," Haney says. "You don't necessarily have to care unless you let them out."

Michael Bonhom, a 36-year-old murderer from Anacostia, echoes the thought. "You're going to have rage in you," says Bonhom, who is seeking a new trial in hopes of getting free. "And all it takes is a second" he snaps his fingers "and you're going to explode."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar