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Virginia Prisoners on Hunger Strike Need Help

By Phil Wilayto

On Tuesday, May 22, a group of prisoners held in Virginia's notorious Red Onion Super-Max prison began a hunger strike to demand that the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) follow its own regulations in regard to meals, sanitation, isolation, safety and procedures for processing prisoner grievances. To support these courageous prisoners, a press conference was held today at 11 a.m. outside DOC headquarters in Richmond, sponsored by the Richmond chapter of SPARC (Supporting Prisoners and Advocating for Radical Change). (See:

Below is the list of the hunger strikers' demands. As you can see, these prisoners, most of whom are African-American and virtually all of whom are poor, are not asking to be released from prison or for any special privileges. They want enough food calories to be able to survive. They want adequate medical care. They want an end to physical abuse by guards. They want to be recognized as human beings.

Red Onion is one of the most isolated prisons in the entire country, one that has come under special scrutiny over the years for its barbaric conditions. The hunger strikers are depending on those of us on the outside to help press their demands.

Please take just a moment to contact the following officials and demand (1) an immediate agreement to meet the prisoners' just demands, and (2) a pledge that there will be no retaliation of any kind against these heroic fighters for justice.

Virginia DOC Director Harold W Clarke: 804-674-3118

Red Onion State Prison Chief Warden Randall Mathena: 276-796-7510

Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell: 804-786-2211 or email from:

And tune in next Monday, May 28, at noon to DefendersLIVE! for a radio interview with members of Richmond SPARC, the prisoner support group that organized todays press conference. WRIR 97.3 FM or online at

For news coverage to date, see below.

And for more coverage, look for the next issue of the Virginia Defender newspaper.

10 Demands of the Red Onion State Prison Hunger Strikers

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 allows 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 eight amendment of 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.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Demands Delivered to VA Department of Correction

Dozens gathered in Richmond to deliver Red Onion State Prison hunger strikers' demands to the Department of Corrections.

Isis Hodari, a hunger strike supporter and family of incarcerated individuals, presented the 10 demands. “It's time for our families and loved ones inside to be treated like human beings.”

Phil Wilayto, of the Richmond Defenders, said “The most important thing about the prisoners' demands is that Red Onion need only follow their own regulations with regard to meals, medicaal care, sanitation, grievance procedures, and humane treatment of prisoners. In order to press these demands the prisoners have to take the extreme step of risking their health and even lives.”

Also present were the Richmond Defenders, RIHD, Collective X, and the Wayside Center for Popular Education.

The DOC's Director of Communications, Larry Traylor, received the demands and delivered them to Director Harold Clarke.



Virginia inmates embark on hunger strike to protest prison conditions

The Washington Post

By Anita Kumar, Tuesday, May 22, 7:02 PM

RICHMOND — About four dozen prisoners at Virginia’s only super-maximum prison began a hunger strike Tuesday, demanding an end to what they call poor conditions, ongoing abuse and the practice of solitary confinement.

Attorneys and groups that represent the inmates say their clients resorted to the strike because no changes were made by the state after complaints about the use of isolation were lodged with the prison and the courts.

State officials said in March that they would implement sweeping changesto Red Onion State Prison this year as part of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s four-year plan to help prisoners reenter society. But the inmates say changes are not coming quickly enough.

Mac Gaskins, 32, who spent four years of his 14-year sentence in Red Onion before being released last year, said he received inadequate treatment in isolation, including being beaten by guards and bitten by dogs.

Gaskins, who was convicted of armed robbery, said he does not think the state will make the changes. “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 coalition of groups, dubbed Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers, sent a letter with 10 demands to McDonnell (R) and U.S. Sens. James Webb and Mark R. Warner (both D-Va.).

McDonnell’s office referred calls to the Virginia Department of Corrections. Red Onion spokesman Larry Traylor declined to comment on the strike, but the department issued a statement.

Red Onion “has always operated constitutionally and protected the Eighth Amendment rights of offenders, and has been nationally accredited by the American Correctional Association,’’ the statement said. “The DOC is continually looking at ways to improve its operations and to enhance management of offenders by applying science as it evolves in the field of corrections.”

The hunger strike comes months after a group of lawmakers visited the remote Southwest Virginia prison and called on officials to curb the use of solitary confinement, especially for the mentally ill.

The prisoners’ demands include an end to indefinite segregation— the word the state uses for isolation — as well as fully cooked meals, monthly haircuts and an outside review of the facility.

State officials have said they plan to appoint a team of experts to examine each prisoner, add more levels of review before inmates are placed in solitary confinement and transfer some inmates to a nearby prison.

Nearly 500 inmates at Red Onion spend 23 hours a day in a cell, don’t shower daily and have limited recreation. Some prisoners, including those with mental illnesses, have been kept in isolation for years, inmates and lawyers say.

Webb’s office declined to comment on Red Onion, but said the retiring senator “has long called for a comprehensive review of the nation’s criminal justice system.’’

Some members of the Virginia General Assembly and human rights groups have asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the use of solitary confinement at Red Onion.

Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who calls segregation “torture,” said inmates must think that the changes the state promised will not occur. “They’ve had it, and they want to see some changes,’’ he said.

Red Onion, built on a mountain about 400 miles from Richmond, isolates more inmates than any other facility in the state — nearly 500 of the state’s 1,700. Inmates are kept in isolation for disciplinary problems, such as assaulting other prisoners or having drugs, or for protection, officials said.

As the effects of isolation — on inmate health, public safety and prison budgets — become clear, some states have begun to reconsider solitary confinement. New York, Mississippi and Texas are scaling back the practice under pressure. Virginia is one of 44 states that houses inmates in isolation.


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