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Virginia prison guards reflect on problems behind bars

Prison guards are in demand nationwide. It’s tough work that usually pays less than other positions in law enforcement, but some people are glad to get the job – like this woman, who asked we not use her name. When she came to work for the Virginia Department of Corrections, she was proud to wear the uniform of a correctional officer.

“You know I wanted my uniform to look crisp. I wanted it ironed every day. I didn’t want to look like I had just crawled out of bed," she recalls. "Now that’s one of the last things. We’re just glad they have clothes on!”

That’s because state prisons are short more than 16-hundred guards, a potentially dangerous situation if inmates think they can get away with breaking the rules.

“They know you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off, or see only one person doing three people’s job, or supervisors are doing officers’ jobs," she explains.

At maximum security prisons like Red Onion, where former guard Brian Mitchell worked, prisoners could be robbed, injured or killed. He recalls feeling unsafe each time he entered a housing unit or pod.

“You walk in, and there are 86 men in there, and you’re the only one wearing a uniform," he says. "It’s a very violent environment. I’ve seen stabbings, I’ve seen dead bodies, I’ve seen assaults, I’ve seen drugs, I’ve seen sexual assaults.”

And that, he says, leads to mental health issues for officers – a problem he claims the department has neglected.

“If they were to go in and evaluate every staff member, it would be overwhelming the amount of PTSD, depression.”

Guards share another problem with 23% of Virginia inmates each summer – high heat in buildings that lack air conditioning.

“When you’re in your dress uniform, when you’re doing cell checks and up and down stairs without elevators, it’s miserable!” says our anonymous source.

Officers and inmates also complain about meals. The department budgets just $2.20 per day to feed each person.

“They provide food for the staff, and there have been many times I would not eat the food,” she says.

And, finally, gangs pose a problem at many state prisons. Former guard Brian Mitchell worked at two of them where he claims administrators made no effort to disband the Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, MS-13 and a number of groups that believe in White supremacy. They’re powerful enough to keep non-members from calling home.

“A lot of the gangs control the phones. These gangs will extort, basically perpetuate criminality as they do on the street.”

There are, of course, solutions to many of these problems for a price. The department has already raised starting salaries for prison guards to $44,000 a year in an attempt to bring in more and better officers.

Brian Mitchell thinks it might be wise to restore parole to reduce inmate misconduct.

“It’s an enticement to behave.”

With money from the federal government, the department plans to air condition six prisons next year and hopes to add AC at the remaining four facilities in 2025.

The department insists it monitors phone use and disciplines inappropriate behavior, but it’s exploring opportunities for additional inmate calls – perhaps making it possible for prisoners to use their tablets to phone home.

As for gangs, the prison system claims it has a zero tolerance policy, but inmate Askari Lamumba says those groups are prevalent.

“They see being in a gang as having some sort of material benefit. They can use the phone. They can use the kiosk. They can have some support in a dangerous environment, so why not gang bang?” he concludes.

If prisons gave inmates more access to programs and other rewards for steering clear of gangs, he says that situation would change. But there’s one other problem that’s more difficult to address – a fundamental culture clash between inmates and guards. We’ll explore that situation in our next report.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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  • There are 26 state prisons in Virginia, a dozen of them in the western part of the state, known to inmates as “the Mountains.” There, correctional officers are mostly White men from rural communities who oversee large numbers of Black men from cities. That has created what some refer to as a culture clash.
  • The Department of Corrections is Virginia’s most expensive agency – costing taxpayers more than one point three billion dollars a year, but taxpayers know little about what goes at our 26 state prisons. Over the years Radio IQ has talked with many prisoners, but administrators refuse to do interviews, and guards are reluctant to speak out. Now, one man – a correctional officer for more than 20 years – is sharing his views.