Red Onion State Prison, Pound, Virginia
May 22 – 29, 2012
About four dozen prisoners initiated a hunger strike at Virginia’s only super-max prison in response to poor conditions, guard abuse, and the use of solitary confinement.
One inmate, Mac Gaskins, who spent four years in Red Onion before being released, said in a statement given to The Washington Post that he received inadequate treatment in solitary confinement, including being beaten by guards and bitten by dogs.
In March of 2012, state officials said they would be implementing widespread changes to Red Onion State Prison. Prisoners, however, had yet to see those changes implemented.
“They are saying that while still abusing prisoners,’’ Gaskins said. “They’ve been saying they would do a better job. They’ve been saying that for years, and they never did it.’’
A statement released by another hunger striker stated, “Regardless of sexual preference, gang affiliation, race and religion, there are only two classes at this prison: the oppressor and the oppressed. We the oppressed are coming together. We’re considered rival gang members, but now we’re coming together as revolutionaries. We’re tired of being treated like animals.”
A coalition of groups on the outside calling themselves “Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers,” sent a letter with 10 demands given by the hunger strikers to Virginia’s Governor McDonnell and two state Senators.
The group also planned a number of outside demonstrations during the duration of the hunger strike.
The 10 demands of the hunger strikers were as follows:
We (prisoners at Red Onion State Prison) demand the right to an adequate standard of living while in the custody of the state!
1. We demand fully cooked food and access to a better quality of fresh fruit and vegetables. In addition, we demand increased portions on our trays, which allow us to meet our basic nutritional needs as defined by VDOC regulations.
2. We demand that every prisoner at ROSP have unrestricted access to complaint and grievance forms and other paperwork we may request.
3. We demand better communication between prisoners and higher-ranking guards. Presently higher-ranking guards invariably take the lower-ranking guards’ side in disputes between guards and prisoners, forcing the prisoner to act out in order to be heard. We demand that higher-ranking guards take prisoner complaints and grievances into consideration without prejudice.
4. We demand an end to torture in the form of indefinite segregation through the implementation of a fair and transparent process whereby prisoners can earn the right to be released from segregation. We demand that prison officials completely adhere to the security point system, insuring that prisoners are transferred to institutions that correspond with their particular security level.
5. We demand the right to an adequate standard of living, including access to quality materials that we may use to clean our own cells. Presently, we are forced to clean our entire cell, including the inside of our toilets, with a single sponge and our bare hands. This is unsanitary and promotes the spread of disease-carrying bacteria.
6. We demand the right to have 3rd party neutral observers visit and document the condition of the prisons to ensure an end to the corruption amongst prison officials and widespread human rights abuses of prisoners. Internal Affairs and Prison Administrator’s monitoring of prison conditions have not alleviated the dangerous circumstances we are living under while in custody of the state, which include, but are not limited to: the threat of undue physical aggression by guards, sexual abuse and retaliatory measures, which violate prison policies and our human rights.
7. We demand to be informed of any and all changes to VDOC/IOP policies as soon as these changes are made.
8. We demand the right to adequate medical care. Our right to medical care is guaranteed under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and thus the deliberate indifference of prison officials to our medical needs constitutes a violation of our constitutional rights. In particular, the toothpaste we are forced to purchase in the prison is a danger to our dental health and causes widespread gum disease and associated illnesses.
9. We demand our right, as enumerated through VDOC policy, to a monthly haircut. Presently, we have been denied haircuts for nearly three months. We also demand to have our razors changed out on a weekly basis. The current practice of changing out the razors every three weeks leaves prisoners exposed to the risk of dangerous infections and injury.
10. We demand that there be no reprisals for any of the participants in the Hunger Strike. We are simply organizing in the interest of more humane living conditions.
The hunger strike came just months after a group of lawmakers visited the prison and called on officials to curb the use of solitary confinement, especially for those deemed mentally ill.
Nearly 500 inmates at Red Onion spend 23 hours a day in a cell. Some prisoners, including those with mental illnesses, have spent years in isolation.
“Virginia inmates embark on hunger strike to protest prison conditions“, The Washington Post, May 22, 2012.
“Prisoners at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison on hunger strike“, San Francisco Bay View, May 27, 2012.
“Hunger strike at Red Onion prison has ended, state officials say“, The Washington Post, May 29, 2012.
“Inmates start hunger strike, protest prison conditions“, CBS 6, May 22, 2012.
Article published: 9/9/19
Header photo source: Washington Post