The New Mexico attorney general's office has asked the FBI to investigate allegations that New Mexico prisoners have been mistreated at one of Virginia's "super-max" prisons.
Dozens of inmates who were transferred to Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Va., in September after a New Mexico prison riot have complained of severe beatings from guards, widespread use of stun guns and the denial of medical treatment at the Virginia facility, among other allegations.
Virginia officials said the charges are untrue. They said they are aware of the request for a federal investigation but have not been told by the FBI or the Justice Department whether such a probe will be undertaken.
Both Wallens Ridge and Virginia's Red Onion State Prison were designed to hold dangerous and volatile prisoners serving long-term sentences and offer little in the way of rehabilitative services. The group Human Rights Watch said in a report last year that the super-max prisons are inhumane and rife with racism and are being filled with prisoners who don't merit such extreme security.
Bennett S. Cohn, an assistant attorney general in New Mexico, said he has received more than 150 letters from inmates and their families complaining of prisoner mistreatment at Wallens Ridge. Several inmates have filed lawsuits against the state of New Mexico requesting a transfer.
"We've taken the position that if there are things going on like what is being described to us--that there could be civil rights violations--we want the federal government to make an inquiry about it," Cohn said. "We're taking these concerns very seriously."
Corrections officials in both New Mexico and Virginia said they investigated the complaints and did not find evidence to substantiate them. But several New Mexico lawmakers have demanded an independent review. In addition to the request for an FBI investigation, the New Mexico attorney general appointed a panel that is expected to release a report within the next two weeks.
"This has been way overblown," said Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections. "This is a groundless attempt by these inmates to get back home. New Mexico is using Virginia as a political football. . . . If New Mexico is unhappy with the way Virginia is running the prison, they can come and get" their inmates, he said.
One inmate, Robert Trujillo, successfully fought to be transferred out of Wallens Ridge, returning to a New Mexico prison on Christmas day, said Trujillo's brother-in-law, Felix Candelaria, of Los Lunas, N.M. Candelaria said Trujillo was sentenced to 20 months in a minimum-security prison for writing bad checks before his transfer to Wallens Ridge. He said his brother-in-law suffers from seizures as a result of being beaten during his four months in the Virginia prison.