A former prison guard shares his thoughts on Virginia's most expensive agency
On a sunny autumn afternoon, I’m taking a tour in Brian Mitchell’s pickup truck. He lives in a small town called Raven – about sixty miles north of the Tennessee line. It’s one of many small communities southwest Virginia in the Clinch River Valley.
“Originally I was raised on Jewel Ridge, which is due north from here. Of course there’s Richlands and Cedur Bluff and Pounding Mill.”
They’re places rich in scenery but poor in economic opportunities. We drive past a shuttered building that Mitchell says is one of the few restaurants in the area.
“It’s a little beer joint that’s open I think Friday and Saturday nights,"
"And I imagine there are a few churches in town," says reporter Hausman.
"Oh yes!" Mitchell replies.
"And the True Value Hardware?"
"So you’re all set," Hausman concludes. "You have everything you need.” (laughter)
He tells me most of the jobs here are tied to the public schools, coal mines and prisons. Mitchell wasn’t crazy about school. He thought mining was too dangerous and there wasn’t much job security, so he went to work for the Virginia Dept. of Corrections.
"I started my career in January of ’99 at Red Onion State Prison. and made a lateral move to Keen Mountain," Mitchell recalls. "I was promoted up through the chain. I was actually an officer for about 12 years total, promoted to sergeant and within two years to lieutenant. Then I was assigned to be an institutional investigator.”
We stop for lunch at the Huddle House, a locally owned diner in neighboring Richlands.
Mitchell tells me his investigations sometimes uncovered serious problems. Keen Mountain was, for example, way behind in producing records required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, because officers assigned to the job had been given other duties.
When Mitchell shared that information with a regional supervisor, he says his boss went ballistic.
“They want to know that the people they promote will be loyal, and loyalty means maybe you look the other way. Maybe you change your story. They run institutions, they run this department with no transparency, and a feeling of absolute power and total control, and they don’t want that challenged.”
He and his superior agreed to take the matter to the prison’s office of human resources.
“It got really bad, really heated," Mitchell remembers. "I said, ‘We’ll just go to HR. I gave him about 10 -12 feet ahead of me, because he was really mad. At one point I thought he may even strike me. We made it up there, and I had a complete meltdown. I actually thought I was dying – had a panic attack. I’d never experienced anything like that.”
He was also asked to investigate an incident involving a prisoner who was tied by his arms, legs and chest to a bed in the infirmary. The inmate was angry – arguing with a supervisor.
At one point it appeared the officer put his hand on the guy’s neck, and a security camera recording the incident suddenly turns toward the wall. Mitchell concluded the supervisor was choking the man and shared this video with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Prison officials took no action until the newspaper made that video public – asking the local commonwealth’s attorney to investigate. Again, there were no consequences for the supervisor. In fact, he received a promotion.
Today, Mitchell is on disability, but he keeps in touch with many prison employees and hopes the new director of Virginia’s Department of Corrections –a former judge– will improve conditions for guards and for inmates.
“The one thing I liked about Chad Dotson is that he is not from the Department of Corrections. He is not part of the good old boy system., so I’m hopeful – very hopeful that he will fix a lot of these problems," Mitchell says.
In our next report, we’ll talk more with guards about some of the challenges facing the new director.