Advocates say there's a need for greater prison oversight, lawmakers are considering options
When DeAndre Gordon was 18, he made a life-changing mistake.
“Me and one of my friends went to go break into a house to get drugs and money," he recalls. "Somebody ended up coming back. A fight broke out, the gun went off and killed a man.”
He was charged with second degree murder, sentenced to 28 years behind bars, and sent to a maximum security prison. In 2022, he claims a guard at the Red Onion Correctional Center picked a fight with him, and Gordon found himself on the floor, surrounded by correctional officers.
“I’m on the ground with my head turned sideways, with my neck being knelt down on so I can’t breathe. One of them has his finger inside my eye socket. One of them is pulling my hair out. Basically, I’m being tortured, and they’re just beating me, beating me, beating me.”
He was taken to solitary confinement and claims staff threatened him repeatedly over the next two weeks. Fearing for his life, he came up with a plan to be transferred from Red Onion.
“I didn’t know any other way that I could get out of their custody besides to set myself on fire, because they don’t have a burn center in Southwest Virginia," he explains. "I knew that I would be going to Richmond.”
On the morning of May 25th, he started a blaze in his cell and suffered a third degree burn on his leg. Guards extinguished the fire and took him to a prison nurse.
“She told me, ‘Gordon, you’re stupid. Why did you do this?’ And I’m like, ‘You know why I did it. I’ve got to get out of their custody.’ And she’s like, ‘This ain’t nothing but a second degree burn at best. You’re not going nowhere!”
But when the wound failed to heal, he was sent to a specialist at VCU’s medical center. Before he left, Gordon says, another officer told him:
‘Yeah that was real clever of you. You’re going to the doctor to get your booboo fixed, but when you get back, I’m going to see you,’ and he’s smiling at me – shaking his head – like he’s really dangerous.”
Doctors at VCU would perform eight separate surgeries to treat his third degree burn and ordered weeks of physical therapy. He was moved to the Sussex II Correctional Center, about an hour from Richmond, and again took extreme action to keep from returning to Red Onion.
“My nurse/practitioner told me that she will keep scheduling me as long as I had an open wound, so I had to keep on opening my skin graft so I could keep coming back every month.”
Finally, he persuaded the warden at Sussex II to keep him there, but when that facility closed, he was transferred back to southwestern Virginia – to another maximum security prison where he saw some of the same guards who had threatened him at Red Onion.
We asked the Department of Corrections about Gordon’s case and were told the agency could not discuss it, because Gordon is suing the prison system. At the ACLU of Virginia, Executive Director Mary Bauer is not surprised.
“We receive several thousands of letters every year. Many of them describe brutal, abusive practices, dangerous conditions, lack of healthcare,” she says.
Prisoners can and do file grievances which the department is supposed to investigate, but Bauer says that system is broken.
"The grievance system in a well-run department can alert the department to bad trends, serious problems, but that only works if the department is committed to really examining that," Bauer explains. "We have not seen that from this department of corrections.”
She’s urging the General Assembly to create a permanent office to look into complaints about state prisons and says it’s going to need sufficient staff and considerable funding.
“The Department of Corrections has a budget of $1.5 billion, and there is virtually no oversight. We need to know what they’re doing.”
Delegate Patrick Hope has introduced House Bill 555 to create an office of prison ombudsman to investigate prisoner complaints and to share findings with the public.