The racist politics of confinement in Virginia’s high security prisons

Abu-Ghraib-guards-naked-prisoners, The racist politics of confinement in Virginia’s high security prisons, Abolition Now! Featured World News & Views
Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where US soldiers – some former prison guards – used extreme brutality against prisoners.

by Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson

July 25, 2023

I was awakened early this morning (just after 3 a.m.) to the sounds of several men in the solitary confinement unit here at Sussex 1 State Prison (S1SP) being rounded up for transfer. Because of the early hours, I knew they were in for a day-long trip to either Red Onion State Prison or Wallens Ridge State Prison – two still unneeded supermax prisons located in the remote mountains of Southwestern Virginia.

Racial classifications in Virginia’s prisons

As usual most of the men being transferred to these prisons were Black, while both are operated by an all-white staff from rural racially segregated white communities that are hostile to people of color. It is a political and racial dynamic that has persisted in Amerika since chattel slavery and the old system of Jim Crow, where disenfranchised and defenseless Blacks are violently contained by hostile communities of armed whites. And as with slavery and Jim Crow, this is by design.

One of several dirty secrets of Virginia’s prison system is that it is racially segregated and affords privileged housing to whites. In other words, the state’s high and low security prisons are populated according to race. The disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown prisoners in Virginia are concentrated in its high security, brutal and less privileged prisons (especially Red Onion, Wallens Ridge and the two Sussex prisons), whereas white prisoners are concentrated in the lowest security prisons where they enjoy the most privileges.

And as they have been used since they opened in 1998 and 1999 respectively, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge are sites where hostile white staff are given free reign to act out racist fantasies against their dark prisoner populations. In fact these prisons are operating using systems of terror and control developed and refined during slavery and Jim Crow and which almost no other prison systems in Amerika use.

Abuses of firearms

First there are the shotguns and other firearms that are routinely used by guards inside these prisons. These guns have been a subject of controversy since these prisons opened, largely because almost no other U.S. prison systems allow or use firearms inside their perimeters, and because of the frequent exposures of repeated abuses of these weapons by guards at these remote prisons. 

Abuses of attack dogs

Then there are the attack dogs. Throughout these prisons, guards with dogs menace the prisoners throughout the day. Everywhere the men go they are confronted by guards with dogs lunging at them attempting to bite them, straining at their leashes, barking and growling. The intent is as it was with U.S. soldiers who were exposed by photos leaked to the international press during 2004, where they were torturing and menacing Arab detainees in Iraq with attack dogs. It has nothing to do with security and everything to do with terrorizing people of color.

US-soldiers-dog-terrorize-prisoner-Abu-Ghraib-2003-2, The racist politics of confinement in Virginia’s high security prisons, Abolition Now! Featured World News & Views
This Dec. 12, 2003, file image obtained by The Associated Press, shows Sgt. Michael Smith, left, with his black dog Marco, Sgt. Santos Cardona, second right, with his tan Belgian shepherd Duco, detainee Mohammed Bollendia and Pvt. Ivan L. Frederick II, right, during an incident at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Iraq. Years after being released by the U.S. military, former detainees held in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay Naval Base are suffering debilitating injuries and mental disorders from their interrogation and alleged torture, according to a new report by a human rights group. Frederick testified on Tuesday, May 23, 2006 that he saw Cardona’s dog bite Bollendia twice after the prisoner “attacked” former Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr. in a prison hallway. Frederick also testified Cardona had told him that he and Smith were having a contest to see how many detainees they could make urinate on themselves. Cardona, an Army dog handler, was part of a small crew of corrupt soldiers who enjoyed tormenting detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a prosecutor at his court-martial said in an opening statement Tuesday. (AP Photo)

But Virginia prisons go much further. These dogs aren’t used to merely terrorize the prisoners. On a daily basis these animals are used to maul and mutilate the prisoners. 

At Virginia’s high security prisons dogs are a FIRST RESORT to force in almost any situation where guards invent or claim justification to use force on prisoners. In response to such minor infractions as failing to answer guards, fist fights, arguing with guards and so on, men have been set upon by the dogs resulting in some of the worst and most terrifying maulings and mutilations one can imagine. Just as “Negro packs of hounds” were the primary weapon used to terrorize and mutilate Black slaves.

Prisoners like Carl Hughes #1415783 have had their genitals ripped apart, other’s faces have been mutilated, nerves severed and have been paralyzed and worse by these animals. Think of the scene in the Jamie Foxx movie “Django Unchained,” when the hounds were set loose on the Black slave who didn’t want to be used any more by his owner to beat up other slaves for sport. This is an accurate depiction of the abuses of dogs on Blacks during antebellum times and today in Virginia prisons.

On May 13, 2013, Carl Hughes, who is transgender, was involved in a minor fistfight with another prisoner in which Carl never threw a punch. In response a guard had his dog target Carl’s genitals. Carl was nearly castrated and received 46 stitches to their groin. During the mauling, the dog handler made homophobic remarks to Carl.

And of course there are the routine beatings and more traditional abuses inflicted on these prisoners for which Red Onion and Wallens Ridge have always been notorious.

Actually the entire culture at these prisons is one adopted from the antebellum and Jim Crow South. For example, as in the Old South, whenever the white staff approach any prisoners moving along a walkway, the prisoners must step off the pavement into the mud or grass and allow the staff person to pass. This sort of inferior racist deference is compelled in all contacts and interactions between staff and prisoners at these prisons.

This is but a brief outline of the racist manner in which Virginia officials operate their high security prisons, and why public oversight, involvement and accountability are necessary. A more in depth expose is forthcoming.

Dare to Struggle Dare to Win!

All Power to the People!

Send out brother some love and light: Kevin Johnson #1007485, Sussex 1, 24414 Musselwhite Dr., Waverly, VA 23891.