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Virginia prisoners stage a hunger strike to protest solitary confinement

The United Nations says solitary confinement is a form of torture, and the Virginia Department of Corrections claims it doesn’t impose that treatment on inmates, but hunger strikers at Red Onion say that’s not true, and a number of prisoners being held in isolation have been refusing food since December 26th in protest.

Prison rights activist Phil Wilayto heard one man was taken to the prison hospital this week.

Last year in Virginia, more than 6,000 inmates did time in a cell the size of a parking space, alone for up to 20 hours a day.
Last year in Virginia, more than 6,000 inmates did time in a cell the size of a parking space, alone for up to 20 hours a day.

“We’re very worried about Rashid’s situation. He has long been a thorn in the side of not only the Virginia Prison System – he’s originally from Richmond, but he’s been transferred to five or six different states as he files complaints and lawsuits and writes newspaper articles exposing what he considers to be inhumane conditions in these various prison systems. “

He says 52-year-old Kevin Rashid Johnson is already battling cancer.

“Which took a very long time to get any attention for. He was diagnosed last year. It took six months before they finally did the proper tests and determined that he did, in fact, have cancer.”

Wilayto says it’s hard to get any information from the Department of Corrections. They claim only five inmates are striking and for different reasons, but some people who know the prisoners claim there are as many as 14 protesters demanding an end to solitary confinement.

“We want to know where they are being held, and have they received any charges as a result of their participation in the hunger strike," Wilayto says. "Are they okay? This all gets down to the question of transparency and oversight of the Department of Corrections. Without transparency and outside oversight it’s impossible for the public to know what’s going on.”

And he has one more question — this one for state lawmakers. Why aren't they doing something to ensure the safe and ethical treatment of prisoners?

"Every legislator has the right to enter any prison at any time and speak with a prisoner. Why don't they do that? Because they don't vote, and if they have a felony conviction, they don't vote when they come out of prison," he concludes.

Once prisoners have missed nine meals, department policy dictates daily medical assessments – weighing inmates while taking care to subtract the weight of any handcuffs that may be in use.

Inmates may be subject to continuous lighting in their cells, loss of their blanket and pillow during the day, restricted access to toilet paper and a ban on all phone calls to encourage an end to their protest.

Deandre Gordon, who went on a hunger strike in 2022, says his clothes were taken away.

“The only way I could get my clothes back was to eat," he recalls. "They’d give me a shirt, some slippers, my boxers. Each meal I ate they would give me something back.”

The state can also ask a judge to order that hunger strikers be force-fed.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief