Back to Red Onion State Prison: Rashid’s return to the original scene of criminal abuse

by Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson

Founded on lies, racism and abuse

“Young Panthers on the March” – Art: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson

After six years of being bounced from state to state, having been exiled from the Virginia prison system for my political views and years of publicizing and resisting the brutal and racist abuses in its prisons, on June 12, 2018, I was returned to Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) in remote Wise County, Va.

Even before I began publicizing these conditions – at ROSP in particular – organizations like Human Rights Watch were reporting on them, bringing almost instant notoriety to ROSP after it opened in 1998, and its staff body – drawn from within and around southwest Virginia’s racially segregated, isolated white mountain communities – as brutal and racist to the extreme.

In its 1999 report[1], HRW exposed how ROSP’s disproportionately non-white prisoner population was being gratuitously beaten, electrocuted and shot with shotguns, routinely called racist names, mocked and caricatured with racist stereotypes, and subjected to a range of additional mistreatments by Red Onion staff.

Also exposed by that and further reports was that this prison – as was its sister supermax Wallens Ridge State Prison (WRSP) built only a few miles away and opening a year after ROSP – were never needed for legitimate prison security reasons. Instead, they were actually constructed at great public expense to create jobs and subsidize industries in a poor region suffering massive job losses due to the closing of many of the region’s coal mines, caused by the introduction of mountaintop removal strip mining by coal companies and the general decline in the demand for coal.

After six years of being bounced from state to state, having been exiled from the Virginia prison system for my political views and years of publicizing and resisting the brutal and racist abuses in its prisons, on June 12, 2018, I was returned to Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) in remote Wise County, Va.

Not coincidentally, both ROSP and WRSP were built on top of mountains whose tops had been removed by strip mining. In fact, one can see huge pools of black toxic waste from this process all around WRSP.

The cycle of window dressing

Every few years new abuse scandals have surfaced and/or the latest official rationales concocted to justify continuing to operate these unneeded, expensive prisons are exposed as lies, prompting a reshuffling of administrative personnel and the invention of a new set of justifications for their continuing to operate.

It only amounts to window dressing – merely changing the curtains while the house and landscape remain the same, which is exactly what I returned to on June 12.

A dramatic police escort

Officials at these remote prisons have a knack for the sensational, which is consistent with their need to make themselves and their useless prisons seem important.

When I was flown back to Virginia from the Florida prison system on a Virginia prison plane, I was met at the local county airport by two ranking ROSP guards accompanied by a military armed five car escort from the Wise County Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff’s deputies in bulletproof gear brandishing assault rifles took up positions around the plane, while one trailed me to the transport van with a large unmuzzled dog. I was squeezed into a tiny metal compartment in back of the van and driven at high speed to Red Onion, with three sheriff cars behind us and two in front – their lights flashing and sirens blaring – forcing all cars along the way off the road.

Self-portraits drawn over the years show that prison takes a toll … yet the strong survive.

Thrown in the torture unit

At ROSP I was met by a mob of guards and separated from the seven bags of personal property I’d brought with me from Florida. I was escorted to an intake area, put through the routine strip search and issued ROSP clothing and bedding. Up to that point everything was uneventful.

I was then taken to my assigned cell, which I found was in the specially constructed B-3 torture unit which I’d previously written about in 2010 and 2011.[2] For insight into the sinister purposes and design of B-3, readers should check out these prior articles.

Except for me, the entire 22 cell B-3 cellblock is empty, and since I’ve been in this pod I’ve been, unlike any other ROSP prisoner, denied all showers and out-of-cell exercise.

My belongings are ransacked and destroyed

On the evening of June 13, a guard, H. Mullins, brought four boxes of my property to my cell which he assured me was all the property brought with me from Florida. Upon receiving and spending all night sorting through it – it had all been ransacked, with all my documents shuffled up together – I found about a fifth of my documentary property was missing. They’d also broken and confiscated my radio, headphones and electric razor.

As I pressed to have the rest of my property returned to me, speaking to various ranking guards and administrators who came into the pod, I found that during my absence from ROSP, many of the guards who were instrumental in the reported abuses of the prison’s early and subsequent years were now running the prison as warden (Jeffrey Kiser), assistant warden (Jeffrey Artrip), security chief (Delmer Tate) and various captains, lieutenants and so on.

A number of their abuses are described in my prior exposés.[3] In fact I’d previously sued the above named officials and the property department supervisor (Lt. James Lambert), who also went through my property, for past abuses in federal court, conducting a day-long jury trial against them which they attended.

So, each of them clearly had the motives, positions, and opportunity to destroy my property.

As I spoke to several of them about my broken and missing property, each told me they’d “check on” it or played the lying game of assuring me that I was given all that came with me from Florida and suggested that maybe Florida damaged it and didn’t send it all. Which was BS because everything brought with me was what I’d had in my cell in Florida – I packed it up in Florida and it was with me from when I packed it until I was escorted from the transport van into ROSP’s intake area.

After spending all night sorting through my property, on June 14 around 8 a.m. I was able to speak with Mullins, who admittedly did the ransack job and inventory of my property along with Lt. Lambert. Mullins played the same game.

When I showed him an inventory from Florida showing my electronics weren’t broken when I left, reflecting a malicious mishandling of my belongings when I got to Red Onion and that I was going to press the issue, Mullins left visibly angry and less than an hour later filed a fabricated disciplinary report claiming he’d found a homemade cuff key in my property while searching it on June 13.

Racially targeted property destruction

There was also a racist motive to their mishandling my belongings – a hate crime? – as all my books and documents on Black history, culture, political views etc. were also specifically targeted and stolen. This included books and printouts of books like:

  • Assata Shakur, “Assata”
  • Elaine Brown, “A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story”
  • Daniel Fogel, “Africa in Struggle”
  • Charles E. Jones et al, “The Black Panther Party Reconsidered”
  • Mumia Abu Jamal, “We Want Freedom! A Life in the Black Panther Party”
  • Ward Churchill et al, “Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against The Black Panther Party and The American Indian Movement”
  • Bobby Seale, “Seize the Time”
  • Joshua Bloom, “Black Against Empire”
  • And many other titles.

There was also a racist motive to their mishandling my belongings – a hate crime? – as all my books and documents on Black history, culture, political views etc. were also specifically targeted and stolen.

Also stolen were back issues of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party’s Right On! newsletter, many of which contained my political articles. Much of this material is relevant to and evidence in litigation challenging my political repression, persecution and slander by prison officials and the history of such by U.S. officials against political groups and activists of color.

Vampires hate the light of exposure

Like all prison officials, ROSP officials resent prisoners publicizing and challenging their abuses. It was because of this that I was transferred out of state and subsequently kicked out of three other prison systems. According to the Virginia prison officials who flew me back to Virginia on June 12, Florida called Virginia’s DOC headquarters only a few days before with an ultimatum – to come get me “by June 15 or else.”

This came on the heels of outside complaints of abuses I’d brought attention to of others and myself, me and various other Florida prisoners working together to unite prisoners at Florida’s notorious Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, where I was confined, whom officials were manipulating into frequent violent clashes, and our organizing a canteen strike for the nationwide prison protests beginning on Juneteenth.

Like all prison officials, ROSP officials resent prisoners publicizing and challenging their abuses.

As for ROSP, it had just been publicized that the same administration of veteran abusers had recently retaliated against another prisoner, Kevin Snodgrass, by fabricating bases for throwing him into solitary confinement because of his litigating against abuses in the prison and his mother’s speaking out at an ACLU press conference.[4]

While taking Snodgrass to solitary, guards threw him against a wall injuring his eye and, as they did to me, broke and confiscated his electronics – his TV and MP3 player. Breaking and taking prisoners’ electronics is an old and frequent practice of ROSP.

In the prison’s earlier years, guards in the property department would cause minor damage to prisoners’ TVs and radios or remove a screw or two and confiscate the items as “altered.” This was most often done to new arrivals.

They would then repair the damage or replace the screws and resell the appliances as second hand items back to prisoners via the canteen or they’d give them to others to barter for good behavior, as rewards to snitches, or donate them to local charities as a PR scam.

The frequent damage and confiscation of prisoners’ electronics was also a scheme used to generate sales of electronics from the commissary to prisoners to replace those taken from them, from which sales ROSP received kickbacks.

All of these sorts of mistreatments and retaliation are the norm at ROSP, with the same abusive officials cycled around perpetuating and preserving the culture of abuse.

Solitary anyone?

Imagine the excruciating pain of having a large section of your hair pulled out by the roots. – Art: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson

And while ROSP officials are quick to hide their continuing use of solitary confinement behind euphemisms, I am at this very moment being held under the most extreme sort of solitary. I am confined in a cell containing only a sink/commode unit and a steel bunk in an entirely empty cellblock that was designed specifically to impose the highest level of sensory deprivation. The cell’s back windows are frosted and black shutters are fixed to the cell door windows, to prevent views of anywhere outside the cell.

Even more absurd is Red Onion officials have now designated B-3 a mental health pod (or an otherwise special use pod) with “mental health safety cell” now painted prominently at the tops of the cell doors, as if cells they originally designed to inflict harm are now meant to protect one from harm.

The unchanged reality, however, is it’s well-established by medical, mental health and torture experts and extensive studies, and even by the U.S. Supreme Court over 100 years ago,[5] that the very sensory deprivation and loss of environmental stimulation these cells inherently cause and were indeed constructed to impose (over and above all other cells in the prison) inflicts the worst sort of torture and exacerbates and causes mental breakdowns and insanity.

So why are these cells now designated to house mental health prisoners? Just an example of how much regard they have for those with mental health needs, and another case of their continuing to invent bogus justifications to continue using demonstrably abusive and unneeded cells in a demonstrably abusive and unneeded prison.

Even more absurd is Red Onion officials have now designated B-3 a mental health pod (or an otherwise special use pod) with “mental health safety cell” now painted prominently at the tops of the cell doors, as if cells they originally designed to inflict harm are now meant to protect one from harm.

So demonstrably unneeded in fact that I can be housed alone in an entirely empty cellblock. Our hard-earned tax dollars at work, and yes, prisoners pay taxes too.[6] Fact is, our slave labor maintains these warehouses at every level.

What’m I doing here?

Actually according to the Virginia DOC’s own rules I’m not even supposed to be at Red Onion. Under its Operating Procedure 020.2, which governs “Compact for Interstate Transfer of Incarcerated Offenders,” “When out-of-the-state Virginia offenders are returned to Virginia, they will be received and processed as a new prisoner at the appropriate reception center …”

Well, Red Onion is not a reception center and I am not being processed as a new prisoner. Indeed, I’m confined under the same prisoner ID number as before leaving Virginia in 2012. Although they like calling themselves law enforcement officials, these are not people who obey rules or laws. No irony there.

Corruption, abuse, Red Onion State Prison. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!

All Power to the People!


[1] See, Jamie Fellner, “Red Onion State Prison: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Virginia” (Human Rights Watch, 1999)

[2] Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “Abu Ghraib Comes to Amerika: Torture Unit Under Construction at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison” (Oct 30, 2010),; Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “Under New Administration Torture Unit Closes Then Reopens at Red Onion State Prison, and Prison Abuse on the Rise,” (Nov. 14, 2011),

[3] Jeffrey Kiser’s role in early abuses at ROSP,  his move to another prison during a “cooling off” period, and return as assistant warden in 2011 to revive extreme physical abuses at the prison is discussed in my article cited in note 2 above, “Under New Administration Torture Unit Closes Then Reopens …”

Jeffrey Artrip, although not named in my prior published reports (he was named in several that weren’t posted online), has an extensive history of physical abuse at Red Onion and was the unit manager of the B-3 torture unit when it was in operation in 2011-2012.

Delmer Tate is repeatedly mentioned in numerous articles for his role in beating prisoners, setting prisoners up for abuse who’ve sued him or he’s had conflicts with. He was the supervisor of an earlier, supersegregation unit where guards freely beat restrained prisoners, and then supervised B-3 until moved following the controversial death of a prisoner in that building. See both articles cited in note 2 above, also Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “Red Onion State Prison, an Exposé: Racism and Brutality Equals Kind and Usual Punishment in Virginia” (2004),; see also addendums #2 and #8 to this exposé at and

James Lambert (erroneously named as Donald Lambert) is also mentioned in “Red Onion State Prison, an Exposé” for his role in assaults on prisoners.

[4] Frank Green, “Mother Says Inmate is Back in Solitary Confinement in Virginia After She Campaigned with ACLU,” Richmond Times-Dispatch (May 11, 2018).

[5] See, In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160 (1890).

[6]  Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “No Incarceration or Taxation without Representation: Amerikan Slavery in the 21st Century” (2011)

Postscript from

This is not the first time Rashid has been in the Virginia prison system – despite having spent years in Oregon, Texas and most recently Florida, he has in fact always been classified as a Virginia prisoner. From 1995 to 2012, Rashid was held at Wallens Ridge and Red Onion State Prisons, in various degrees of solitary confinement.

A cheer went up from California prisoners and supporters when we saw this solidarity logo drawn by Rashid, a gift that sustained and inspired tens of thousands of California hunger strikers through three long periods in 2011-2013 of self-imposed starvation. – Art: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson

Through correspondence, he worked to educate his peers while also reaching out to activists on the outside. Much of the correspondence during this time would form the basis of his first book “Defying the Tomb,” published in 2010.

In 2011, Rashid wrote a series of articles about a new isolation unit being opened at Red Onion, and about ongoing guard abuse that included a “pain-compliance technique“ that involves bending prisoners backwards, to the point that they would sometimes break. At the same time, he became well known as the artist who drew the drawing that would serve as an unofficial logo for the historic California hunger strikes that year.

When guards retaliated by beating Rashid, dislocating his shoulder and tearing his dreadlocks out from his scalp, outside supporters attempted to mobilize to protect him, while calling attention to the abuses he had been documenting for years. In an attempt to pre-empt an embarrassing situation, the Virginia Department of Corrections had Rashid first transferred to Wallens Ridge – where he was openly told by guards that they intended to kill him – and then, in mid-February 2012, he was moved once again, this time out of state.

Using something called the Interstate Compact, VADOC spent the next six years moving Rashid from one state to another. First Oregon, then Texas, then Florida – in each new location, Rashid set about documenting the abuse that he and other prisoners were subjected to.

Indeed, besides political theory, the bulk of Rashid’s writings and work have been attempting to protect or seek justice for those most vulnerable behind bars – those prisoners whose physical and emotional health issues mark them for abuse from guards and prison medical staff. That he has undertaken this work at often considerable risk to himself has earned him an international reputation as an observer and critic of the U.S. prison system, by far the world’s largest.

It is his work exposing abuse that has prompted his repeated transfers from one state to another.

And now he is back in Virginia, at Red Onion, the prison where he faced serious abuse in the past. Indeed, he has communicated to his lawyer that the same people are still working there today.

For this reason, we need to start making calls to Red Onion to demand that he be given his property, that he be removed from solitary and that he not be abused. The phone number is 276-796-7510. Ask to speak with the property manager or the warden.

Please make calls as soon as you can!

Please also write to Rashid, to let him know that he is in your thoughts – and also to make it clear to the prisoncrats that he has support: Kevin Johnson, 1007485, Red Onion State Prison, P.O. Box 1900, Pound, VA 24279.