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Inmates face violence and weeks of lockdown at Wallens Ridge

Virginia Department of Corrections
At this remote, maximum-security prison in southwestern Virginia, critics fear human rights violations.

Last September the state indicted two men at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge for murdering fellow inmates. Less than three months later a third man was killed. Someone who knew the victim said he had repeatedly asked to be transferred, telling administrators he could no longer share a cell with the guy who eventually killed him. Our source said space was available, but Wallens Ridge refused.

Margaret Breslau, co-founder of the Virginia Prison Justice Network, was not surprised. She shared a letter she’d gotten from another prisoner with cellmate problems.

“He begged to have a single cell," she explains. "What he writes is: I have serious mental health issues. I will either be killed or I will kill someone. Help!”

The state has responded to violence and drug use at Wallens Ridge with lengthy lockdowns in which people are stuck in their cells with no time for calls home, meals in the chow hall or recreation. Again, Breslau reads from her mailbox.

“The last quarter of ‘22 was challenging. We spent a total of seven weeks on lockdown. I witnessed a man attempt to jump head-first over the top tier – refusing to be locked in his cell any longer. Give or take we’ve had outside rec five times within the last two months.”

At a regional non-profit called Interfaith Action for Human Rights, Senior Advisor Gay Gardner says the law limits how long people in solitary can be held in their cells, but there are no restrictions for prisoners in the general population. One man at Wallens Ridge could not understand.

Gay Gardner.JPG
Interfaith Action for Human Rights
Prisoner-advocate Gay Gardner hopes lawmakers will create an independent office to oversee Department of Corrections conduct.

“People in general population were getting less time out of their cells than the people who were in restorative housing, which is the latest euphemisms for solitary confinement," she explains. "He wrote, 'Dudes come out of restorative housing and tell us that they had four hours out of their cell daily – either chained to a table or outside. Please explain: How are inmates that are in restorative housing – otherwise known as the hole – for various behavioral violations getting more out of cell time than me – an inmate that’s over 12 months charge free and doing exactly what’s expected of me.'”

She heard from another inmate who claimed he was unable to shower for 18 days and says guards have been searching cells for contraband and damaging prisoner property.

“Destruction of TVs and other electronics, opening food that was purchased from the commissary and ruining it, shredding of mail and even linens and clothing. One person told me they had Vaseline spread all over their sink and on their toothbrushes.”

If prisoners are unhappy with their treatment, they can file formal grievances with the state or complain to an ombudsman, but Reverend David Lindsey, who heads Interfaith Action for Human Rights, says that rarely prompts a fair hearing.

“There are regional ombudsmen within the Department of Corrections, but that’s just part of the issue. They’re within the Department of Corrections, so it’s investigating itself.”

The next step for aggrieved inmates is a legal challenge, and Lindsey says lawsuits can be costly for the state.

“The Department of Corrections has to spend time to deal with that often through a settlement, a payout which is made with taxpayer dollars.”

David Marsden
State Senator David Marsden (D-Fairfax) is sponsoring SB994 to provide independent oversight of state prisons.

So he, Gardner and Breslau are hoping the legislature will approve Senate Bill 994. Sponsored by Senator David Marsden, it would establish an independent panel to investigate complaints from prisoners.

Even if it’s not approved, Breslau says, she’s glad it’s up for debate.

“Because there is a public comment period, because they do ask questions of the DOC, because it puts pressure on them whether it passes or fails.”

We offered the Department of Corrections an opportunity to discuss the situation at Wallens Ridge but officials did not respond.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief