Oppression, Resistance, Unity, Power: A Statement In Support of the Virginia Prisoner Hunger Strike

From: Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle
By Rashid Johnson
June 21, 2012

In protest against the ongoing and inhumane conditions at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison – one of Amerika’s most notoriously abusive and racist prisons – dozens of men at the prison went on a hunger strike. The strike began on May 22, 2012 and lasted several weeks.

I had spent over a decade imprisoned at Red Onion. Much of that time was spent in political growth, and my writing and circulating reports and articles to publicly expose abuses there, and trying to help build us a support structure on the outside.

I also struggled to impart to my peers the truism that while oppression does breed resistance, resistance without unity and public support is futile, which is why our captors promote division and individualism among prisoners – a “mind your own business” and “don’t concern your self with others” mentality – and manipulate us to misdirect our frustrations and ‘resistance’ against and between ourselves. It is also why they maneuver at every turn to alienate the general public against us with fear and hatred, the old Willie Lynch game.

To repress my efforts, officials kept me in solitary, often isolated from other prisoners. They routinely censored, destroyed and ‘lost’ my correspondence, imposed increased repression and abuses on me, and finally, on February 11, 2012, transferred me cross-country without notice or explanation to the Oregon prison system.

But I’d like to believe that despite their attempts to undermine and frustrate this work, my efforts, in collaboration with others of like mind, took root and bore fruit.

Many of the hunger strikers are men whom I had the honor of serving as both student and teacher. Many are members of street tribes (so-called gangs), whose traditional rivalries kept them divided against and at odds with each other – divisions and conflicts that Red Onion officials acted at every turn to fuel and perpetuate. However, as one of the representatives of the hunger strike stated, “We’re tired of being treated like animals. There are only two classes at this prison: the oppressor and the oppressed. We, the oppressed, despite divisions of sexual preference, gang affiliation, race and religion, are coming together. We are rival gang members, but now are united as revolutionaries.”

And the prisoners now have an outside voice and support structure to publicly air their grievances and demands for basic human rights.

As I often point out to my peers, although we outnumber them at least ten to one and many of us are in prime physical condition, our oppressors have power, and the power to oppress us, only because they have unity and control public opinion. Whereas they keep us divided, and the public alienated against us, it is just as effective a political tool today as it was yesterday on Southern slave plantations and in campaigns to exterminate Native peoples and subjugate Mexicans to turn profits and steel land. It is the politics of oppression.

But today’s prison movement is learning from Georgia’s prisoner strike of 2010, to California’s prisoner hunger strike of 2011, to this latest hunger strike at Red Onion. We are learning that not only does oppression breed resistance, but political consciousness breeds unity, and unity begets power. It enables people so long indoctrinated to believe themselves powerless to see that they can challenge and change oppression by uniting against their common oppressor.

The greater our numbers and unity, the greater is our power to turn mere resistance into seizure of power, which is why unity of the oppressed is the greatest fear of any oppressor. The prison movement has much to teach us. We are conquered only because and insofar as we are divided.

Dare to struggle, dare to win!

All power to the people!

Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson, Minister of Defence of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party – Prison Chapter, is a political prisoner, activist, revolutionary writer and artist.

Write to him at Kevin Rashid Johnson #19370490, Oregon State Penitentiary, 2605 State Street, Salem, OR 97310-1346

More info at http://rashidmod.com/

A Wave of Prisoner Resistance Sweeps the South

“We’re tired of being treated like animals.”

By Jen Waller andThomas Hintze
Waging Nonviolence, via: http://www.indypendent.org/2012/06/01/wave-prisoner-resistance-sweeps-south
Thanks to: The Real Cost of Prisons

June 1, 2012

Last week, prisoners in two different facilities in the United States resisted inhumane conditions — one through an uprising that the mainstream media dubbed a “riot,” and the other through a hunger strike. The tactics employed by the two groups differ, but the messages are clearly linked: Prisoners are protesting their conditions and are willing to put their lives on the line to fight for better treatment.

On May 20, inmates took control of the Adams County Correctional Facility in Mississippi for over eight hours. One inmate managed to access a cell phone during the uprising and called WLBT TV in Jackson, proving his presence in the prison by sending pictures. He gave the station the following statement: “They beat us; we’re just [paying] them back. We just need better treatment and services. We need medical attention. We just want some respect. They call us wetbacks” — referring to a racist slur used against undocumented immigrants.

The prison is privately owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which manages over 60 facilities and touts a capacity of 90,000 beds. The prison in Adams County is populated by immigrants from over 70 countries awaiting deportation and is part of a larger war on undocumented immigrants in the United States. 2011 was a record year for deportations: 396,000 people were removed from the country, and more than half of those people were convicted of crimes and held at private immigration detention facilities like the one in Adams County.

During the uprising, one guard was killed, and several guards and inmates were injured. Over two dozen guards were reportedly held hostage. The prisoners were subdued by SWAT teams, which dropped pepper spray grenades and tear gas bombs into the facility. Before it was quashed, more than 600 of about 2,500 total inmates were reportedly involved in the takeover.

The mainstream media, much like the prison officials themselves, have sought to silence the grievances that motivated the uprising. Nearly every headline has emphasized images of violence, tumult, disorder. Many news outlets claimed that a gang fight started the revolt, yet they fail to explain how a clash between rival gangs could result in an apparently unified uprising with clear demands.

The nature of the uprising and the death of a prison guard in the midst of it have given the media a pretext to ignore the massive violence and brutality that prisoners suffer across the country every single day. The incident is also symptomatic of the fact that the privatization of prisons like the one in Adams County means a lack of oversight and responsibility, which results in inhumane conditions for inmates. The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance has received numerous complaints about the conditions of this CCA facilitity and many others, with reports of beatings, overcrowding, substandard food and lack of proper medical care, among other grievances. These are precisely the kinds of problems that were cited by those who took matters into their own hands in Mississippi by mounting an occupation.

Meanwhile, 45 prisoners at Red Onion State Prison in Wise County, Virginia were plotting another kind of resistance: a hunger strike, which they launched on May 22. With the help of a network of prisoner-support activists in the area, the hunger strikers released 10 demands and a press advisory. Among these demands were such basics as fully-cooked food and access to fresh fruit and vegetables, access to complaint and grievance forms, an end to torture in the form of indefinite segregation, and adequate medical care. Five hundred of the 1,700 inmates at Red Onion — Virginia’s only “supermax” prison — spend 23 hours a day in isolation. Inmates at Red Onion have also reported being beaten by guards and bitten by dogs.

Prisoner hunger strikes like this have been growing in frequency. Just in the past year, hunger strikes have happened at the Ohio State Penitentiary, the Corcoran State Prison, Pelican Bay State Prison, Ironwood State Prison, Kern Valley State Prison and more. Prisoners around the world are also choosing to resist by hunger striking, most notably the 2,500-strong Palestinian prisoner hunger strike that went on for weeks and was ultimately hailed as a victory. As we write, there are prisoners fasting in resistance in Dubai, Morocco, Egypt and, earlier this week, a 110-day hunger strike ended in Bahrain.

On Tuesday, a flurry of articles, including one in The Washington Post, ran with headlines claiming that the hunger strike at Red Onion prison had ended. In order for the state to officially recognize a hunger strike, inmates must reject their meals for nine consecutive days, which Virginia Department of Corrections Director Harold Clarke said they had not. In response to the news, activists with the group Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers issued a response challenging the validity of the DOC’s statements:

There has been a history of organizing at this prison to protest the inhumane conditions since the opening of the prison. Because it was the prisoners themselves who put their bodies on the line to call attention to injustices at Red Onion, it should be the prisoners to whom we listen over the press releases of the Virginia Department of Correction. Given that the VA DOC both failed to acknowledge the hunger strike at the onset and engaged in sending out misinformation, their version of events is suspect.

At Red Onion, one of the hunger strikers’ representatives denounced the inhumanity of the prison:

We’re tired of being treated like animals. There are only two classes at this prison: the oppressor and the oppressed. We, the oppressed, despite divisions of sexual preference, gang affiliation, race and religion, are coming together. We are rival gang members but now are united as revolutionaries.

Those affirmative words echo a rich and varying legacy of prisoner resistance that is all but forgotten in the American consciousness. Perhaps the most famous prison uprising in U.S. history was the Attica rebellion of 1971, when prisoners took control of the facility in upstate New York for five days before Governor Nelson Rockefeller approved a military siege. Thirty-one prisoners were killed, and nine guards died in the hail of bullets used to quash the occupation. Yet, over the course of those five days, the prisoners at Attica built a sense of community, about which one black prisoner later said, “I never thought whites could really get it on … But I can’t tell you what the yard was like, I actually cried it was so close, everyone so together.”

As the speaker from Attica and the representative at Red Onion State Prison both allude to, it is when divides of race, identity, and affiliation start to break down that prisoners are empowered to seek better conditions and more rights. These struggles also depend on those on the outside who show solidarity and help to spread awareness of the prisoners’ grievances. Supporters of the Red Onion hunger strike are organizing through their website and an online petition. The San Francisco Bay View has posted a further list of ways people can support the Red Onion revolutionaries. Inmates are putting their lives in danger to fight for meaningful change in a brutal system, but without people outside the prisons echoing them, their cries can continue being silenced and ignored.
——-
http://virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com/

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

http://www.indypendent.org/2012/06/01/wave-prisoner-resistance-sweeps-south

Prisoners at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison on hunger strike

From: SF Bay View
May 27, 2012
by Mary Ratcliff, SF Bay View

On May 22, brave prisoners at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison began a hunger strike. Their decision to starve themselves in an effort to be heard is the latest in a recent series of prison strikes, one of the very few forms of peaceful recourse available to prisoners to protest intolerable conditions.

The series started Dec. 9, 2010, with a sit-down strike by thousands of prisoners in Georgia, tired of being forced to work for free like slaves, followed by Lucasville prisoners’ hunger strike at Ohio State Penitentiary in January 2011 and the mass hunger strikes in California beginning July 1, 2011, that involved 12,000 prisoners in 13 prisons simultaneously refusing food at their peak. Hunger strikes worldwide, from Palestine, where prisoners acknowledged being inspired by their peers in California, to Kyrgysztan, where prisoners literally sewed their mouths shut, have followed.

Red Onion State Prison in rural Virginia sits in the barren crater of a formerly lush green mountain whose top was blown off to remove the coal that used to be mined the old-fashioned way. Built in 1998, it’s the new economic development model for Appalachia: mountaintop removal covered by prisons and Wal-Marts, now the only job options for out-of-work miners and their families, according to JJ Heyward, a veteran activist who volunteered at the Bay View before moving to the East Coast.

Now the miners who used to mine “black gold” – coal – mind Black prisoners. Heyward says that Washington, D.C., has no prisons, so anyone sentenced to five years or more is shipped out of state, often to Red Onion, culturally a world away. Creative activists to the rescue, the staff of WMMT Mountain Community Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky, broadcast a show connecting prisoners and their families back home that can be heard in Red Onion and seven more state and federal mountain prisons plus many regional jails and detention centers.
[photo:]
“Red Onion State Prison was opened a dozen years ago amid a major prison-building effort in Virginia. It was designed to confine the most dangerous criminals – often in solitary cells where they have almost no interaction with others,” reads the caption published with this photo by The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

“In recent years, central Appalachia has seen a boom in prison construction, and many of those who have subsequently been incarcerated in our region’s growing prison system come from places far, far away from the coalfields,” explains WMMT. “Due to this distance and the often prohibitive cost of phone calls in prison, many have no contact with their friends and family, being far outside of a travel range that many loved ones can afford. In response, WMMT began the Holler to the Hood project 10 years ago in an effort to connect those in prison to their families, friends and the outside world.”

The show, now called Hot 88.7 – Hip Hop from the Hilltop and Calls From Home, airs Mondays 9-10 p.m. Eastern Time (6-7 p.m. Pacific Time). Go to WMMT to listen live. This week’s show will focus on the Red Onion hunger strike. Call 1(888) 396-1208 to record your message between 7-9 p.m. (4-6 p.m. PT) on Monday for broadcast that night. [links for WMMT do not appear to work: http://appalshop.org/wmmtfm/ – VA PW]

A statement released by one of the hunger strike representatives says: “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.”

After exhausting legal and administrative remedies, the Red Onion prisoners issued 10 demands (printed in full below) and vowed to starve themselves until their demands are met. They include the right to have fully cooked meals, the right to clean cells, the right to be notified of the purpose and duration of their detention in segregation and a call for an end to indefinite segregation. Red Onion has been repeatedly criticized since it opened in 1998. A 1999 Human Rights Watch report on Red Onion concluded that the “Virginia Department of Corrections has failed to embrace basic tenets of sound correctional practice and laws protecting inmates from abusive, degrading or cruel treatment.”

Torture, Red Onion style

I first heard of Red Onion when Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, a nationally known prison writer and artist often compared to George Jackson, designed what became the symbol of the California hunger strikes. It shows black, brown and white arms clasped together indicating racial unity around a fork and spoon on a map of California crossed out as in a “no smoking” sign.
Rashid Johnson, who drew this self portrait, is a founding organizer of the New African Black Panther Party-Prison Chapter (NABPP-PC) and author of the book “Defying the Tomb.” With a foreword by Russell “Maroon” Shoats and afterword by Sundiata Acoli, renowned political prisoners, the book has been banned as “gang literature” by Pelican Bay State Prison.
Rashid’s acclaim did not protect him at Red Onion, where, in one of countless episodes of torture, he was assaulted by staff on Dec. 12, 2011. They dislocated his shoulder and pulled a 3-inch by 7-inch swath of his dreadlocks out by the roots. This occurred when he refused to turn his back on an officer as he came out of the exercise cage.

Mac Gaskins, a prisoner at Red Onion for 14 years released only last June, was interviewed May 22, the day the hunger strike began, on Voices with Vision on Pacifica station WPFW in Washington, D.C. Listen to the show here and read the transcript of the entire interview below, following the 10 demands.

Mac discusses torture at Red Onion: “having your fingers broken inside of these places, being bitten by dogs, being strapped to beds for days, as we’ve talked about many times, being forced to defecate on yourself – I mean all of this has led to these men demanding to be treated as human beings. It’s like if you are put inside prison, you forfeit that right to be treated as a human being. …

“Access to adequate medical care inside of prison, especially in supermax prison, it’s almost nonexistent. You have men there, they have chronic illnesses that aren’t being treated. There was one guy when I was at Red Onion, he died from undiagnosed advanced diabetes. This guy had diabetes for years and he was never diagnosed. …

“So maybe your fingers were broken, as mine were multiple times at these places, and then you’re denied any sort of medical care. Your bones are never reset, any of that. It’s like they don’t even have medical staff at the prison.

“They come in with riot gear – I’m talking about jump boots, shields, dogs, pepper spray – to assault you. Maybe eight men come in. They wrestle you down.

“You’re totally subdued – handcuffed, shackled – and then they proceed to break your fingers. They bend them back one by one, trying to break as many of your fingers as they can. They try to break your toes. And the whole time they are yelling out, ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ to make it look like you’re the one who is escalating the situation.

“When you’re taken out, they put the spit mask on your face ‘cause they usually bust your face up pretty bad. They put the spit mask on so the camera can’t see the damage that has been inflicted. The nurses come over allegedly to assess the damage.
John “Mac” Gaskins, a prisoner at Red Onion State Prison for 14 years, was released just last June.
“My hand looked like a volley ball. I mean you couldn’t even see the definition of my hand. My whole hand was like a ball. The nurse told me I had full range of movement and no bones in my hand were broken. …

“I have watched men eat feces in prison; I’ve watched men throw feces on each other. I would hear men in their cells screaming at night, basically just escaping to some place of insanity. They are driving men insane. …

“At Red Onion, all of the light is artificial in your cells – there are no windows in the cells – and it’s total sensory deprivation. So they asked this guy Ron D’Angelo, how do you justify sending men here? There are no educational programs, no vocational programs, men are just rotting and deteriorating in these places. …

“He said, ‘We didn’t bring these guys up to the mountains to rehabilitate them; we brought them to the mountains to die.’ …

“Now at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, they are taking away books for guys that are in segregation. You have to meet a certain behavioral criteria to receive books. So, for guys in the old days like George Jackson, that was their only escape. Now you don’t even have that. They have taken that away.”

How you can help

Call WMMT’s Calls From Home show to give a shout out of support to the hunger strikers. The Monday, May 28, show is especially critical; it’s the first since the strike began and will air the 10 demands of the hunger strikers. Prison officials are likely to respond by removing all prisoner radios before the next Monday show, so this will be the last chance to let these brave men know we are out here standing in solidarity with them and doing our best to make their voices heard.

In order to preserve the longevity of the show – which is an important method by which men receive messages weekly from their loved ones back home – WMMT is asking everyone calling in to be conscious of some constraints on what you say:

Don’t mention the pending ROSP hunger strike directly.
No cursing!
Don’t mention any of the men by name.
Don’t make your statement a call to action; this is considered inciting a riot by officials and will give them fuel to impose restrictions on access to the show in the future

They suggest that you:

– read a quote from a hunger striker in California, Ohio, Palestine or elsewhere.
– offer vague solidarity and support for the “struggle”; those who need to know will know what you’re talking about.
– read a short quote from George Jackson, their most beloved revolutionary, or other revolutionary figure.
– keep it short; 50 short messages will be a more powerful display of support than fewer long messages. The men need to know that there are many people out here standing in solidarity.

Calls are taken and recorded from 7-9 p.m. ET (4-6 PT) and then these calls are aired from 9-10 p.m. ET (6-7 p.m. PT). The number to call is (606) 633-1208 or 1(888) 396-1208 to give a shout out. You can listen to the show live at http://appalshop.org/.

Write to Virginia prisoners to spread the word. Red Onion is a supermax prison; prisoners are isolated and communication among them is difficult. Supporters are calling for volunteers to send short, personal, creatively written letters into everyone in the Virginia prison system they have contact information for to inform them of what’s going on. Email katherinecolespiper@gmail.com or JJ Heyward at tortakin@gmail.com for prisoners’ names and addresses. The VDOC (Virginia Department of Corrections) will try hard and fast to silence this and keep the hunger strike from spreading as it did in California. We need to be harder and faster.

Call Virginia officials who have the power to meet the hungers strikers’ demands:

Gov. Bob McDonnell, Robert.F.McDonnell@Governor.Virginia.Gov, (804) 786-4273
Virginia Corrections Director Harold W. Clarke, Harold.Clarke@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (804) 674-3118
Red Onion State Prison Chief Warden Randall Mathena, Randall.Mathena@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (276) 796-7510
Western Region Corrections Operations Chief G.K. Washington, GK.Washington@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (804) 674-3612

Sample phone call or email: Hello, I’m calling to express my support for the hunger strikers in Red Onion State Prison. These men are on hunger strike to call attention to inhumane conditions at Red Onion, from fully cooked meals and medical attention to sanitary living conditions and an end to solitary confinement. We demand an immediate response to the strikers’ demands. Red Onion has a long history of public scrutiny for conditions, and we, the broad movement to support the Red Onion hunger strikers, won’t let up until their demands are met and until Red Onion guarantees that there will be zero retaliation on the hunger strikers.

Sign the petition in support of the Virginia hunger strikers at http://www.change.org/petitions/grant-the-ten-demands-of-the-hunger-strikers-at-red-onion-state-prison. Sign and share!

Stay updated at http://virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com/ and, on Facebook, Solidarity for Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers.

The Red Onion hunger strikers, like those who preceded and will inevitably follow them, are dead serious. Their support website, Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers, reports the participants are in good spirits and are encouraged by the outside attention and response to their call for solidarity and support from their communities.

In addition to refusing to eat, the men are also refusing the three weekly showers they are allowed and the one hour of recreation they are permitted each day. They do not want to leave their cells until they are able to talk with a third party outside observer.

On the first day of the strike, strikers in one of the segregation pods were informed that the phone in their pod had “broken.” The same day, one striker was moved from his pod to a different pod in segregation and was threatened with losing his prison job and being charged with a false charge if he did not stop striking.

Strikers expect they will soon be split apart into separate pods (or cell blocks) in an attempt to break the strike. While being separated is not ideal, strikers also realize this could help them to spread word about the strike.

In the words of veteran prisoner advocate Marpessa Kupendua, “We must support these courageous comrades who are actively revolting against the incarceration nation. Go to http://virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com and take action!”
Ten demands of ROSP 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 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.
The New York City Ad-Hoc Committee staged a solidarity action May 25 with the Red Onion prisoners on hunger strike.
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.
Interview with recently released Red Onion prisoner John ‘Mac’ Gaskins

This interview was broadcast on Pacifica station WPFW’s Voices with Vision, Washington, D.C., May 22, 11 a.m. It was transcribed by human rights advocate Kendra Castaneda.

Ryme Katkhouda: Good morning, Naji. Share with listeners what has been going on with the mobilizations about prisoners?

Naji Mujahid: As we speak, there’s a press conference going on in Richmond, Virginia, to announce the beginning of a hunger strike at Red Onion State Prison. Red Onion State Prison is a maximum security Virginia state prison down in the southwestern corner of the state where there has been a longstanding problem of abuse.
While in the torturous Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, Rashid Johnson drew what became the symbol of the California hunger strikes.
The prisoners, I would assume, have been inspired by other hunger strikes that have been going on around the country for the past year. We’ve seen them in Ohio, California; there was the work stoppage in Georgia. Also the Palestinian prisoners in Israel have been on strike for some time now. So it’s activity that has been gaining traction; what it seems to be is an attempt at the folks down there to tap into that.

In the studio with us we have John “Mac” Gaskins of the D.C. chapter of SPARC, Supporting Prisoners and Acting for Radical Change, and also somebody who has first-hand experience, having been at Red Onion, and he can speak further to that.

There is a list of 10 demands and the headline of them reads: “We the prisoners at Red Onion State Prison demand the right to an adequate standard of living while in the custody of the state.” And running down the list of demands is real basic stuff; it’s stuff that people shouldn’t have to ask for.

I guess, Mac, you can begin by explaining some of the demands; and one thing that strikes me, having known you and having discussed some of the things going on at Red Onion, you know, this list is kind of tame. It could be miles long but it’s just this basic stuff like toothpaste.

John “Mac” Gaskins: Right, in those prisons, not only in Red Onion, Wallens Ridge, in all those prisons in Southwest Virginia, you’re denied access to basic necessities such as toothpaste, soap. The toothpaste they sell is such low quality they actually sell it in a packet – it’s like a packet of ketchup – and it’s like a dollar. It will last you a couple of days – two days tops. That’s maybe brushing once a day.

All these things from having your fingers broken inside of these places, being bitten by dogs, being strapped to beds for days, as we’ve talked about many times, being forced to defecate on yourself – I mean all of this has led to these men demanding to be treated as human beings. It’s like if you are put inside prison, you forfeit that right to be treated as a human being. So this list is pretty basic. I feel that on this list, medical should be up at the top.

Ryme: What do you mean exactly by medical, Mac? For some listeners, they don’t have a clue about how bad it can be on the inside.

Mac: Access to adequate medical care inside of prison, especially in supermax prison, it’s almost nonexistent. You have men there, they have chronic illnesses that aren’t being treated. There was one guy when I was at Red Onion, he died from undiagnosed advanced diabetes. This guy had diabetes for years and he was never diagnosed.

The guards, which is common practice, they abuse prisoners. One of the demands on here is better communication with prisoners and higher ranking guards. They are demanding that the guards, the higher ranking officials, at least take prisoners complaints into consideration. Because right now they are basically forced to act out in order to get these guys’ attention.

So maybe your fingers were broken, as mine were multiple times at these places, and then you’re denied any sort of medical care. Your bones are never reset, any of that. It’s like they don’t even have medical staff at the prison. It’s totally nonexistent.

Ryme: We always see in the movies, Mac, and for some people that’s their only reference, that there is an infirmary, that there are nurses that are very well dressed and ready to serve you, doctors, and everything looks fine. And we always have this scene – until there is a major uprising – of a really smoothly running prison.

And here you are talking about broken bones and whatever. Where was everybody when your bones were broken? What was going on? Still, give people the story. I know it’s painful, but we need to hear painful. This idea of sugarcoating the world so we don’t see blood about the wars, we don’t hear the pain about what goes on in the prison keeps people complacent and they are not giving support on the outside.

Mac: Yes, yes, I totally agree. So one scenario: Maybe some guy is denied his tray at Red Onion, his meal tray, so he asks for a complaint form, which is totally denied to him. You have to go through the sergeant. They’re not accessible in the office or anything like that. You have to go through the sergeant, and he determines if your complaint is valid or not, which most of the time he’s going to say it isn’t. So maybe this guy floods his cell, which I’ve done, floods his cell or kicks his door to bring attention on himself.

Naji: About flooding his cell, what do you mean, like clogging up the toilet?

Mac: Clogging up the toilet, yeah, and like flooding his cell.

They come in with riot gear – I’m talking about jump boots, shields, dogs, pepper spray – to assault you. Maybe eight men come in. They wrestle you down.

You’re totally subdued – handcuffed, shackled – and then they proceed to break your fingers. They bend them back one by one, trying to break as many of your fingers as they can. They try to break your toes. And the whole time they are yelling out, “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” to make it look like you’re the one who is escalating the situation.

When you’re taken out, they put the spit mask on your face ‘cause they usually bust your face up pretty bad. They put the spit mask on so the camera can’t see the damage that has been inflicted. The nurses come over allegedly to assess the damage.

My hand looked like a volley ball. I mean you couldn’t even see the definition of my hand. My whole hand was like a ball. The nurse told me I had full range of movement and no bones in my hand were broken.

The medical staff at the prison, they lie to protect the higher ranking officials at the prison. They would not allow me to go out to see an outside doctor. I never had an x-ray done on my hand, any of that.

So the medical staff there, I mean it’s like they are totally in cahoots with the corruption that’s going on inside the prison. There was another guy where the bone in his hand had been totally snapped in half, and only because of that where they forced to take him to the hospital. His family had come in, they saw it, they made a big fuss about it; but only in extreme cases do you have access to doctors or any sort of adequate medical care in prison. At Red Onion, it’s nonexistent.

They have this guy Ron D’Angelo – they asked him once how do you justify keeping a man in these sorts of conditions? Taking them outside to recreation cages that are like dog kennels. If you are about 6 feet tall, you have to duck down to get inside of this cage – very small, maybe half of this booth, not even that. And you go out there maybe four times a week, for about 45 minutes. And that’s at the discretion of the guards, since they have to get two officers, stripsearch you, handcuff you, both walk you outside, so maybe they don’t feel like giving you rec, so they don’t give you rec that day.

Ryme: And this means time to be in the yard outside your cell, right?

Mac: Yes, but not a yard, not a yard. They have this illusion that you’re outside on the yard. At Red Onion there is no yard; they have dog kennels which are inside of the building. They do have the roof cut off where it looks like you are outside, but you are in this plexiglas enclosure that is surrounded by fence, so you’re not outside.
This drawing by Rashid is called “Control Unit Torture.” To see a mind-blowing display of his work – all of it done while he himself is being tortured in a control unit – go to http://rashidmod.com/art/. Rashid encourages the use of his art for free. You’ll find a drawing on almost every topic you care about. – Art: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson
At Red Onion, all of the light is artificial in your cells – there are no windows in the cells – and it’s total sensory deprivation. So they asked this guy Ron D’Angelo, how do you justify sending men here? There are no educational programs, no vocational programs, men are just rotting and deteriorating in these places. He said in response, “We didn’t bring these guys …”

Ryme: What does that do to men mentally?

Mac: It destroys them. I have watched men eat feces in prison; I’ve watched men throw feces on each other. I would hear men in their cells screaming at night, basically just escaping to some place of insanity. They are driving men insane. I think all of us, I don’t think you can live under those sorts of conditions and not be damaged by that to some degree, so I think you slip in and out of insanity. For someone like me, I just happened to escape and still have some sense of sanity but …

Naji: What were you about to say about what Ron D’Angelo said?

Mac: He said, “We didn’t bring these guys up to the mountains to rehabilitate them; we brought them to the mountains to die.”

There’s this good video – if anyone listening hasn’t seen it, they need to see it – it’s called “Up the Ridge.” They have this footage of when they are doing the ribbon cutting for Wallens Ridge State Prison; there’s this big sign on top of it that says something like Future Home of Virginia’s Exiles, basically meaning all of the guys who can’t fit in the legitimate framework of society, this is where we exile them to, a supermax prison

Ryme: You are listening to Voices with Vision on WPFW, Washington D.C., 89.3FM on your dial. We have with us Mac, who is talking to us about the prisoners’ strike and about Red Onion. This was heavy, so you said there are the medical conditions and there’s also the mental pressure that’s put on the men?

Mac: Yes, and there’s nothing. At one point you couldn’t be sent to Red Onion because they didn’t have any sort of services that accommodated someone with a mental illness. But, in the interest of money, even though it’s a state prison, it’s pretty complicated, because Virginia is building prisons to hold prisoners from other states. That’s what this video “Up The Ridge” is all about.

They have one prison called Green Rock, which only has Pennsylvania prisoners. They don’t hold Virginia prisoners. And Red Onion, Wallens Ridge, was doing that to some degree for a while. They had prisoners from New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Virgin Islands, so they wanted to fill those beds.

When they first built the prisons, there was a criteria: You had to be one of the most violent prisoners in the state. But the guys weren’t really meeting that criteria to fill 1,500 beds or something, so they just started lowering what the required criteria was to be sent to a supermax prison so anyone could go.

Naji: I saw the Wallens Ridge documentary; if I remember correctly, like you said it is supposed to be for the worst of the worst. But you ended up having people come in there for nonviolent offenses and so forth. I think there was a kid from Connecticut, you know they were bringing guys all the way down from Connecticut to Virginia with relatively minor charges. You know, poor fellow ended up committing suicide from the stress that was put on him. I think you told me before, suicide – successful suicides and suicide attempts – is not at all uncommon.

Ryme: There is also a masquerade around suicides that all of us all know just too well, which is when somebody just needs to disappear, there’s suddenly a so-called suicide. This is pretty sad and intense. What besides these two conditions, Mac, are the demands of the prisoners that are on strike?

Mac: The prisoners’ first demand is the demand for fully cooked food and access to a better quality of fresh fruit and vegetables, in addition to increased portions on their food trays. This is a minimal request just to meet their basic nutritional needs as defined by the Virginia Department of Corrections. The food that you get – I can’t explain in words the poor quality of this food – you probably wouldn’t feed this food to your dog, not that a dog is anything less than a human being, that a dog deserves less. You wouldn’t even feed to an animal the food they are feeding to prisoners.

The second demand is that every prisoner at Red Onion State Prison have unrestricted access to complaint and grievance forms and other paperwork they may request. They will give you a grievance form but not a complaint form, and you have to have a complaint form in order to write a grievance form. So if you write the grievance, send that out to the regional director or whatever, he’s going to send it back saying you didn’t take the proper steps first. You’ve got to go through the warden first, but if they are denying you access to complaint forms, then it’s useless to have a grievance form.

Third, we talked about better communication between prisoners and guards.

The fourth, which is very important: “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.” When you go to Red Onion State Prison, it’s not like the typical solitary confinement situation. When you go to Red Onion State Prison, we are talking years no matter what you go there for; everyone goes to segregation. You have to stay in segregation for multiple years. There are guys that have been in segregation since they built the place in 1998.

Naji: Can you explain what segregation is for those who are unfamiliar with it?

Mac: Segregation is, I guess we could, to make it easier, call it solitary confinement, where you are placed in a cell all by yourself for a minimum 23 hours a day, sometimes 23½. You have restricted access to books, media. Your food choices are a lot worse; you get the worst of the food that they serve at the prison. Even though all food they serve at the prison is horrible, in segregation it’s worse. You are only able to take showers three days a week. Your visits are restricted.

You are in this box and the conditions are horrible: sensory deprivation, no windows in the cell. When I came out, Naji, not to get released from prison but to go into a general population setting, it felt like I was getting released from prison.

One, because I had not smelled fresh air in six years because I had been in this cell for six years straight. I had not seen a tree or anything related to nature in years. It doesn’t mean that much until it’s taken away, where you are in some box 23½ hours a day in five or six years.

You haven’t seen another person other than guards that come to the door, and they are totally hostile towards you. Every time that you move from your cell, whether it’s from a visit or to go see a doctor or go to the dog kennels, whatever it is you have to strip naked to go through this humiliating process, bend over, spread your buttocks, open your mouth. They are going to make you do this multiple times until they’re satisfied with your level of humiliation.

Then they are going to chain you up – your wrists, your ankles – and put this belt around your waist, then put this dog leash on – that’s literally a dog leash – to the handcuffs wrapped around your hands. So it’s about a 2- or 3-inch span between you and the officers, like right up on your back, and they march you outside typically at a speed faster than you can walk, so the shackles scrape your legs. It’s horrible conditions, man; that’s solitary confinement.

Now at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, they are taking away books for guys that are in segregation. You have to meet a certain behavioral criteria to receive books. So, for guys in the old days like George Jackson, that was their only escape. Now you don’t even have that. They have taken that away.

Ryme: So much is going on and so much is going on without us realizing it, while really it’s our tax dollars and other countries’ goods and assets that are being pulled to do these things. When we learned that it was happening in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, we said that it is torture and we said it was unacceptable. And here we are in the back yard of the United States, where we sit comfortably in our houses looking at TV and crying over what happens to prisoners abroad, and this is going on.

The strike started this morning. Can you tell the listeners what exactly they can do to support it and for how long is it going to be going on?

Mac: It is going to be going on for a minimum of four days, about four days, Naji?

Naji: I’m not certain.

Mac: In any case, in any hunger strike we want it to be as brief as possible. These are men’s lives we are talking about here. After a couple of weeks, organs start to shut down and men start to die. The hunger strike in any case is a short campaign. It can’t go on forever.

Ryme: How can people get to know more about what’s going on?

Mac: Well, there is some contact information.

Naji: is the website up?

Mac: Yes, contact Virginiasolidraity@gmail.com and the website is Virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com.

Naji: There is also a group on Facebook dedicated to solidarity and support of the Virginia hunger strikers. There are tweets coming out at hashtag VA hunger strike.

Ryme: And also, for full disclosure, all the producers and hosts of this show and co-hosts are with the prisoner solidarity movements in different ways. I’m with Stop Mass Incarceration. Naji and Netfa [Freeman] also work on that. This issue is so serious that you’ve got to cross the line, and is there really a line? We are people and this is Voices with Vision.

Mac: I want to add something else. I want folks to, even in your personal space, start to humanize prisoners. There’s this widespread belief that most prisoners are in prison for some heinous violent act, and that is totally untrue. Most of these guys are in prison for drugs and drug related offenses, property crimes.

I was having a discussion a couple nights ago and I said that for me, I want to redefine what it means to be a political prisoner. Not just because you are in prison because of a political act, but most folks in prison are political prisoners because the basis of their incarceration is all built around a political agenda: The war on poverty, that’s a political agenda. The war on drugs, that’s a political agenda. So these guys are political prisoners. Even though they don’t know it, they are political prisoners.

So the way we stay in solidarity, man, is getting involved with whatever efforts folks doing on the ground – standing in solidarity with that – maybe even doing a hunger strike ourselves out here on the outside. Contact your legislators. Wherever you are, man, do whatever you can to show support to prisoners, because this isn’t a Virginia issue; this is a human rights issue.

This thing with Wells Fargo is still going on, so we’ve got to ramp that up a little bit.

Ryme: Well Fargo funding private prisons?

Mac: Wells Fargo, the biggest funder of Geo Group, the second largest provider of private prisons in this country.

Ryme: Thank you, Mac. This is really important to keep in the consciousness in the people.

Naji: Mac mentioned to contact the legislators. You can contact the state legislators in Virginia, or even if you don’t live in Virginia, the state legislators here. In Washington, the senators. Also send this out to different media outlets. Just support by getting the word out and by getting in touch with people whom you know to be possibly influential and helpful in this situation.

Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff can be reached at editor@sfbayview.com or (415) 671-0789.

Prisoners at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison on hunger strike

From: SF Bay View
May 27, 2012
by Mary Ratcliff, SF Bay View

On May 22, brave prisoners at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison began a hunger strike. Their decision to starve themselves in an effort to be heard is the latest in a recent series of prison strikes, one of the very few forms of peaceful recourse available to prisoners to protest intolerable conditions.

The series started Dec. 9, 2010, with a sit-down strike by thousands of prisoners in Georgia, tired of being forced to work for free like slaves, followed by Lucasville prisoners’ hunger strike at Ohio State Penitentiary in January 2011 and the mass hunger strikes in California beginning July 1, 2011, that involved 12,000 prisoners in 13 prisons simultaneously refusing food at their peak. Hunger strikes worldwide, from Palestine, where prisoners acknowledged being inspired by their peers in California, to Kyrgysztan, where prisoners literally sewed their mouths shut, have followed.

Red Onion State Prison in rural Virginia sits in the barren crater of a formerly lush green mountain whose top was blown off to remove the coal that used to be mined the old-fashioned way. Built in 1998, it’s the new economic development model for Appalachia: mountaintop removal covered by prisons and Wal-Marts, now the only job options for out-of-work miners and their families, according to JJ Heyward, a veteran activist who volunteered at the Bay View before moving to the East Coast.

Now the miners who used to mine “black gold” – coal – mind Black prisoners. Heyward says that Washington, D.C., has no prisons, so anyone sentenced to five years or more is shipped out of state, often to Red Onion, culturally a world away. Creative activists to the rescue, the staff of WMMT Mountain Community Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky, broadcast a show connecting prisoners and their families back home that can be heard in Red Onion and seven more state and federal mountain prisons plus many regional jails and detention centers.
[photo:]
“Red Onion State Prison was opened a dozen years ago amid a major prison-building effort in Virginia. It was designed to confine the most dangerous criminals – often in solitary cells where they have almost no interaction with others,” reads the caption published with this photo by The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

“In recent years, central Appalachia has seen a boom in prison construction, and many of those who have subsequently been incarcerated in our region’s growing prison system come from places far, far away from the coalfields,” explains WMMT. “Due to this distance and the often prohibitive cost of phone calls in prison, many have no contact with their friends and family, being far outside of a travel range that many loved ones can afford. In response, WMMT began the Holler to the Hood project 10 years ago in an effort to connect those in prison to their families, friends and the outside world.”

The show, now called Hot 88.7 – Hip Hop from the Hilltop and Calls From Home, airs Mondays 9-10 p.m. Eastern Time (6-7 p.m. Pacific Time). Go to WMMT to listen live. This week’s show will focus on the Red Onion hunger strike. Call 1(888) 396-1208 to record your message between 7-9 p.m. (4-6 p.m. PT) on Monday for broadcast that night. [links for WMMT do not appear to work: http://appalshop.org/wmmtfm/ – VA PW]

A statement released by one of the hunger strike representatives says: “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.”

After exhausting legal and administrative remedies, the Red Onion prisoners issued 10 demands (printed in full below) and vowed to starve themselves until their demands are met. They include the right to have fully cooked meals, the right to clean cells, the right to be notified of the purpose and duration of their detention in segregation and a call for an end to indefinite segregation. Red Onion has been repeatedly criticized since it opened in 1998. A 1999 Human Rights Watch report on Red Onion concluded that the “Virginia Department of Corrections has failed to embrace basic tenets of sound correctional practice and laws protecting inmates from abusive, degrading or cruel treatment.”

Torture, Red Onion style

I first heard of Red Onion when Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, a nationally known prison writer and artist often compared to George Jackson, designed what became the symbol of the California hunger strikes. It shows black, brown and white arms clasped together indicating racial unity around a fork and spoon on a map of California crossed out as in a “no smoking” sign.
Rashid Johnson, who drew this self portrait, is a founding organizer of the New African Black Panther Party-Prison Chapter (NABPP-PC) and author of the book “Defying the Tomb.” With a foreword by Russell “Maroon” Shoats and afterword by Sundiata Acoli, renowned political prisoners, the book has been banned as “gang literature” by Pelican Bay State Prison.
Rashid’s acclaim did not protect him at Red Onion, where, in one of countless episodes of torture, he was assaulted by staff on Dec. 12, 2011. They dislocated his shoulder and pulled a 3-inch by 7-inch swath of his dreadlocks out by the roots. This occurred when he refused to turn his back on an officer as he came out of the exercise cage.

Mac Gaskins, a prisoner at Red Onion for 14 years released only last June, was interviewed May 22, the day the hunger strike began, on Voices with Vision on Pacifica station WPFW in Washington, D.C. Listen to the show here and read the transcript of the entire interview below, following the 10 demands.

Mac discusses torture at Red Onion: “having your fingers broken inside of these places, being bitten by dogs, being strapped to beds for days, as we’ve talked about many times, being forced to defecate on yourself – I mean all of this has led to these men demanding to be treated as human beings. It’s like if you are put inside prison, you forfeit that right to be treated as a human being. …

“Access to adequate medical care inside of prison, especially in supermax prison, it’s almost nonexistent. You have men there, they have chronic illnesses that aren’t being treated. There was one guy when I was at Red Onion, he died from undiagnosed advanced diabetes. This guy had diabetes for years and he was never diagnosed. …

“So maybe your fingers were broken, as mine were multiple times at these places, and then you’re denied any sort of medical care. Your bones are never reset, any of that. It’s like they don’t even have medical staff at the prison.

“They come in with riot gear – I’m talking about jump boots, shields, dogs, pepper spray – to assault you. Maybe eight men come in. They wrestle you down.

“You’re totally subdued – handcuffed, shackled – and then they proceed to break your fingers. They bend them back one by one, trying to break as many of your fingers as they can. They try to break your toes. And the whole time they are yelling out, ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ to make it look like you’re the one who is escalating the situation.

“When you’re taken out, they put the spit mask on your face ‘cause they usually bust your face up pretty bad. They put the spit mask on so the camera can’t see the damage that has been inflicted. The nurses come over allegedly to assess the damage.
John “Mac” Gaskins, a prisoner at Red Onion State Prison for 14 years, was released just last June.
“My hand looked like a volley ball. I mean you couldn’t even see the definition of my hand. My whole hand was like a ball. The nurse told me I had full range of movement and no bones in my hand were broken. …

“I have watched men eat feces in prison; I’ve watched men throw feces on each other. I would hear men in their cells screaming at night, basically just escaping to some place of insanity. They are driving men insane. …

“At Red Onion, all of the light is artificial in your cells – there are no windows in the cells – and it’s total sensory deprivation. So they asked this guy Ron D’Angelo, how do you justify sending men here? There are no educational programs, no vocational programs, men are just rotting and deteriorating in these places. …

“He said, ‘We didn’t bring these guys up to the mountains to rehabilitate them; we brought them to the mountains to die.’ …

“Now at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, they are taking away books for guys that are in segregation. You have to meet a certain behavioral criteria to receive books. So, for guys in the old days like George Jackson, that was their only escape. Now you don’t even have that. They have taken that away.”

How you can help

Call WMMT’s Calls From Home show to give a shout out of support to the hunger strikers. The Monday, May 28, show is especially critical; it’s the first since the strike began and will air the 10 demands of the hunger strikers. Prison officials are likely to respond by removing all prisoner radios before the next Monday show, so this will be the last chance to let these brave men know we are out here standing in solidarity with them and doing our best to make their voices heard.

In order to preserve the longevity of the show – which is an important method by which men receive messages weekly from their loved ones back home – WMMT is asking everyone calling in to be conscious of some constraints on what you say:

Don’t mention the pending ROSP hunger strike directly.
No cursing!
Don’t mention any of the men by name.
Don’t make your statement a call to action; this is considered inciting a riot by officials and will give them fuel to impose restrictions on access to the show in the future

They suggest that you:

– read a quote from a hunger striker in California, Ohio, Palestine or elsewhere.
– offer vague solidarity and support for the “struggle”; those who need to know will know what you’re talking about.
– read a short quote from George Jackson, their most beloved revolutionary, or other revolutionary figure.
– keep it short; 50 short messages will be a more powerful display of support than fewer long messages. The men need to know that there are many people out here standing in solidarity.

Calls are taken and recorded from 7-9 p.m. ET (4-6 PT) and then these calls are aired from 9-10 p.m. ET (6-7 p.m. PT). The number to call is (606) 633-1208 or 1(888) 396-1208 to give a shout out. You can listen to the show live at http://appalshop.org/.

Write to Virginia prisoners to spread the word. Red Onion is a supermax prison; prisoners are isolated and communication among them is difficult. Supporters are calling for volunteers to send short, personal, creatively written letters into everyone in the Virginia prison system they have contact information for to inform them of what’s going on. Email katherinecolespiper@gmail.com or JJ Heyward at tortakin@gmail.com for prisoners’ names and addresses. The VDOC (Virginia Department of Corrections) will try hard and fast to silence this and keep the hunger strike from spreading as it did in California. We need to be harder and faster.

Call Virginia officials who have the power to meet the hungers strikers’ demands:

Gov. Bob McDonnell, Robert.F.McDonnell@Governor.Virginia.Gov, (804) 786-4273
Virginia Corrections Director Harold W. Clarke, Harold.Clarke@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (804) 674-3118
Red Onion State Prison Chief Warden Randall Mathena, Randall.Mathena@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (276) 796-7510
Western Region Corrections Operations Chief G.K. Washington, GK.Washington@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (804) 674-3612

Sample phone call or email: Hello, I’m calling to express my support for the hunger strikers in Red Onion State Prison. These men are on hunger strike to call attention to inhumane conditions at Red Onion, from fully cooked meals and medical attention to sanitary living conditions and an end to solitary confinement. We demand an immediate response to the strikers’ demands. Red Onion has a long history of public scrutiny for conditions, and we, the broad movement to support the Red Onion hunger strikers, won’t let up until their demands are met and until Red Onion guarantees that there will be zero retaliation on the hunger strikers.

Sign the petition in support of the Virginia hunger strikers at http://www.change.org/petitions/grant-the-ten-demands-of-the-hunger-strikers-at-red-onion-state-prison. Sign and share!

Stay updated at http://virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com/ and, on Facebook, Solidarity for Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers.

The Red Onion hunger strikers, like those who preceded and will inevitably follow them, are dead serious. Their support website, Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers, reports the participants are in good spirits and are encouraged by the outside attention and response to their call for solidarity and support from their communities.

In addition to refusing to eat, the men are also refusing the three weekly showers they are allowed and the one hour of recreation they are permitted each day. They do not want to leave their cells until they are able to talk with a third party outside observer.

On the first day of the strike, strikers in one of the segregation pods were informed that the phone in their pod had “broken.” The same day, one striker was moved from his pod to a different pod in segregation and was threatened with losing his prison job and being charged with a false charge if he did not stop striking.

Strikers expect they will soon be split apart into separate pods (or cell blocks) in an attempt to break the strike. While being separated is not ideal, strikers also realize this could help them to spread word about the strike.

In the words of veteran prisoner advocate Marpessa Kupendua, “We must support these courageous comrades who are actively revolting against the incarceration nation. Go to http://virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com and take action!”
Ten demands of ROSP 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 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.
The New York City Ad-Hoc Committee staged a solidarity action May 25 with the Red Onion prisoners on hunger strike.
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.
Interview with recently released Red Onion prisoner John ‘Mac’ Gaskins

This interview was broadcast on Pacifica station WPFW’s Voices with Vision, Washington, D.C., May 22, 11 a.m. It was transcribed by human rights advocate Kendra Castaneda.

Ryme Katkhouda: Good morning, Naji. Share with listeners what has been going on with the mobilizations about prisoners?

Naji Mujahid: As we speak, there’s a press conference going on in Richmond, Virginia, to announce the beginning of a hunger strike at Red Onion State Prison. Red Onion State Prison is a maximum security Virginia state prison down in the southwestern corner of the state where there has been a longstanding problem of abuse.
While in the torturous Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, Rashid Johnson drew what became the symbol of the California hunger strikes.
The prisoners, I would assume, have been inspired by other hunger strikes that have been going on around the country for the past year. We’ve seen them in Ohio, California; there was the work stoppage in Georgia. Also the Palestinian prisoners in Israel have been on strike for some time now. So it’s activity that has been gaining traction; what it seems to be is an attempt at the folks down there to tap into that.

In the studio with us we have John “Mac” Gaskins of the D.C. chapter of SPARC, Supporting Prisoners and Acting for Radical Change, and also somebody who has first-hand experience, having been at Red Onion, and he can speak further to that.

There is a list of 10 demands and the headline of them reads: “We the prisoners at Red Onion State Prison demand the right to an adequate standard of living while in the custody of the state.” And running down the list of demands is real basic stuff; it’s stuff that people shouldn’t have to ask for.

I guess, Mac, you can begin by explaining some of the demands; and one thing that strikes me, having known you and having discussed some of the things going on at Red Onion, you know, this list is kind of tame. It could be miles long but it’s just this basic stuff like toothpaste.

John “Mac” Gaskins: Right, in those prisons, not only in Red Onion, Wallens Ridge, in all those prisons in Southwest Virginia, you’re denied access to basic necessities such as toothpaste, soap. The toothpaste they sell is such low quality they actually sell it in a packet – it’s like a packet of ketchup – and it’s like a dollar. It will last you a couple of days – two days tops. That’s maybe brushing once a day.

All these things from having your fingers broken inside of these places, being bitten by dogs, being strapped to beds for days, as we’ve talked about many times, being forced to defecate on yourself – I mean all of this has led to these men demanding to be treated as human beings. It’s like if you are put inside prison, you forfeit that right to be treated as a human being. So this list is pretty basic. I feel that on this list, medical should be up at the top.

Ryme: What do you mean exactly by medical, Mac? For some listeners, they don’t have a clue about how bad it can be on the inside.

Mac: Access to adequate medical care inside of prison, especially in supermax prison, it’s almost nonexistent. You have men there, they have chronic illnesses that aren’t being treated. There was one guy when I was at Red Onion, he died from undiagnosed advanced diabetes. This guy had diabetes for years and he was never diagnosed.

The guards, which is common practice, they abuse prisoners. One of the demands on here is better communication with prisoners and higher ranking guards. They are demanding that the guards, the higher ranking officials, at least take prisoners complaints into consideration. Because right now they are basically forced to act out in order to get these guys’ attention.

So maybe your fingers were broken, as mine were multiple times at these places, and then you’re denied any sort of medical care. Your bones are never reset, any of that. It’s like they don’t even have medical staff at the prison. It’s totally nonexistent.

Ryme: We always see in the movies, Mac, and for some people that’s their only reference, that there is an infirmary, that there are nurses that are very well dressed and ready to serve you, doctors, and everything looks fine. And we always have this scene – until there is a major uprising – of a really smoothly running prison.

And here you are talking about broken bones and whatever. Where was everybody when your bones were broken? What was going on? Still, give people the story. I know it’s painful, but we need to hear painful. This idea of sugarcoating the world so we don’t see blood about the wars, we don’t hear the pain about what goes on in the prison keeps people complacent and they are not giving support on the outside.

Mac: Yes, yes, I totally agree. So one scenario: Maybe some guy is denied his tray at Red Onion, his meal tray, so he asks for a complaint form, which is totally denied to him. You have to go through the sergeant. They’re not accessible in the office or anything like that. You have to go through the sergeant, and he determines if your complaint is valid or not, which most of the time he’s going to say it isn’t. So maybe this guy floods his cell, which I’ve done, floods his cell or kicks his door to bring attention on himself.

Naji: About flooding his cell, what do you mean, like clogging up the toilet?

Mac: Clogging up the toilet, yeah, and like flooding his cell.

They come in with riot gear – I’m talking about jump boots, shields, dogs, pepper spray – to assault you. Maybe eight men come in. They wrestle you down.

You’re totally subdued – handcuffed, shackled – and then they proceed to break your fingers. They bend them back one by one, trying to break as many of your fingers as they can. They try to break your toes. And the whole time they are yelling out, “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” to make it look like you’re the one who is escalating the situation.

When you’re taken out, they put the spit mask on your face ‘cause they usually bust your face up pretty bad. They put the spit mask on so the camera can’t see the damage that has been inflicted. The nurses come over allegedly to assess the damage.

My hand looked like a volley ball. I mean you couldn’t even see the definition of my hand. My whole hand was like a ball. The nurse told me I had full range of movement and no bones in my hand were broken.

The medical staff at the prison, they lie to protect the higher ranking officials at the prison. They would not allow me to go out to see an outside doctor. I never had an x-ray done on my hand, any of that.

So the medical staff there, I mean it’s like they are totally in cahoots with the corruption that’s going on inside the prison. There was another guy where the bone in his hand had been totally snapped in half, and only because of that where they forced to take him to the hospital. His family had come in, they saw it, they made a big fuss about it; but only in extreme cases do you have access to doctors or any sort of adequate medical care in prison. At Red Onion, it’s nonexistent.

They have this guy Ron D’Angelo – they asked him once how do you justify keeping a man in these sorts of conditions? Taking them outside to recreation cages that are like dog kennels. If you are about 6 feet tall, you have to duck down to get inside of this cage – very small, maybe half of this booth, not even that. And you go out there maybe four times a week, for about 45 minutes. And that’s at the discretion of the guards, since they have to get two officers, stripsearch you, handcuff you, both walk you outside, so maybe they don’t feel like giving you rec, so they don’t give you rec that day.

Ryme: And this means time to be in the yard outside your cell, right?

Mac: Yes, but not a yard, not a yard. They have this illusion that you’re outside on the yard. At Red Onion there is no yard; they have dog kennels which are inside of the building. They do have the roof cut off where it looks like you are outside, but you are in this plexiglas enclosure that is surrounded by fence, so you’re not outside.
This drawing by Rashid is called “Control Unit Torture.” To see a mind-blowing display of his work – all of it done while he himself is being tortured in a control unit – go to http://rashidmod.com/art/. Rashid encourages the use of his art for free. You’ll find a drawing on almost every topic you care about. – Art: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson
At Red Onion, all of the light is artificial in your cells – there are no windows in the cells – and it’s total sensory deprivation. So they asked this guy Ron D’Angelo, how do you justify sending men here? There are no educational programs, no vocational programs, men are just rotting and deteriorating in these places. He said in response, “We didn’t bring these guys …”

Ryme: What does that do to men mentally?

Mac: It destroys them. I have watched men eat feces in prison; I’ve watched men throw feces on each other. I would hear men in their cells screaming at night, basically just escaping to some place of insanity. They are driving men insane. I think all of us, I don’t think you can live under those sorts of conditions and not be damaged by that to some degree, so I think you slip in and out of insanity. For someone like me, I just happened to escape and still have some sense of sanity but …

Naji: What were you about to say about what Ron D’Angelo said?

Mac: He said, “We didn’t bring these guys up to the mountains to rehabilitate them; we brought them to the mountains to die.”

There’s this good video – if anyone listening hasn’t seen it, they need to see it – it’s called “Up the Ridge.” They have this footage of when they are doing the ribbon cutting for Wallens Ridge State Prison; there’s this big sign on top of it that says something like Future Home of Virginia’s Exiles, basically meaning all of the guys who can’t fit in the legitimate framework of society, this is where we exile them to, a supermax prison

Ryme: You are listening to Voices with Vision on WPFW, Washington D.C., 89.3FM on your dial. We have with us Mac, who is talking to us about the prisoners’ strike and about Red Onion. This was heavy, so you said there are the medical conditions and there’s also the mental pressure that’s put on the men?

Mac: Yes, and there’s nothing. At one point you couldn’t be sent to Red Onion because they didn’t have any sort of services that accommodated someone with a mental illness. But, in the interest of money, even though it’s a state prison, it’s pretty complicated, because Virginia is building prisons to hold prisoners from other states. That’s what this video “Up The Ridge” is all about.

They have one prison called Green Rock, which only has Pennsylvania prisoners. They don’t hold Virginia prisoners. And Red Onion, Wallens Ridge, was doing that to some degree for a while. They had prisoners from New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Virgin Islands, so they wanted to fill those beds.

When they first built the prisons, there was a criteria: You had to be one of the most violent prisoners in the state. But the guys weren’t really meeting that criteria to fill 1,500 beds or something, so they just started lowering what the required criteria was to be sent to a supermax prison so anyone could go.

Naji: I saw the Wallens Ridge documentary; if I remember correctly, like you said it is supposed to be for the worst of the worst. But you ended up having people come in there for nonviolent offenses and so forth. I think there was a kid from Connecticut, you know they were bringing guys all the way down from Connecticut to Virginia with relatively minor charges. You know, poor fellow ended up committing suicide from the stress that was put on him. I think you told me before, suicide – successful suicides and suicide attempts – is not at all uncommon.

Ryme: There is also a masquerade around suicides that all of us all know just too well, which is when somebody just needs to disappear, there’s suddenly a so-called suicide. This is pretty sad and intense. What besides these two conditions, Mac, are the demands of the prisoners that are on strike?

Mac: The prisoners’ first demand is the demand for fully cooked food and access to a better quality of fresh fruit and vegetables, in addition to increased portions on their food trays. This is a minimal request just to meet their basic nutritional needs as defined by the Virginia Department of Corrections. The food that you get – I can’t explain in words the poor quality of this food – you probably wouldn’t feed this food to your dog, not that a dog is anything less than a human being, that a dog deserves less. You wouldn’t even feed to an animal the food they are feeding to prisoners.

The second demand is that every prisoner at Red Onion State Prison have unrestricted access to complaint and grievance forms and other paperwork they may request. They will give you a grievance form but not a complaint form, and you have to have a complaint form in order to write a grievance form. So if you write the grievance, send that out to the regional director or whatever, he’s going to send it back saying you didn’t take the proper steps first. You’ve got to go through the warden first, but if they are denying you access to complaint forms, then it’s useless to have a grievance form.

Third, we talked about better communication between prisoners and guards.

The fourth, which is very important: “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.” When you go to Red Onion State Prison, it’s not like the typical solitary confinement situation. When you go to Red Onion State Prison, we are talking years no matter what you go there for; everyone goes to segregation. You have to stay in segregation for multiple years. There are guys that have been in segregation since they built the place in 1998.

Naji: Can you explain what segregation is for those who are unfamiliar with it?

Mac: Segregation is, I guess we could, to make it easier, call it solitary confinement, where you are placed in a cell all by yourself for a minimum 23 hours a day, sometimes 23½. You have restricted access to books, media. Your food choices are a lot worse; you get the worst of the food that they serve at the prison. Even though all food they serve at the prison is horrible, in segregation it’s worse. You are only able to take showers three days a week. Your visits are restricted.

You are in this box and the conditions are horrible: sensory deprivation, no windows in the cell. When I came out, Naji, not to get released from prison but to go into a general population setting, it felt like I was getting released from prison.

One, because I had not smelled fresh air in six years because I had been in this cell for six years straight. I had not seen a tree or anything related to nature in years. It doesn’t mean that much until it’s taken away, where you are in some box 23½ hours a day in five or six years.

You haven’t seen another person other than guards that come to the door, and they are totally hostile towards you. Every time that you move from your cell, whether it’s from a visit or to go see a doctor or go to the dog kennels, whatever it is you have to strip naked to go through this humiliating process, bend over, spread your buttocks, open your mouth. They are going to make you do this multiple times until they’re satisfied with your level of humiliation.

Then they are going to chain you up – your wrists, your ankles – and put this belt around your waist, then put this dog leash on – that’s literally a dog leash – to the handcuffs wrapped around your hands. So it’s about a 2- or 3-inch span between you and the officers, like right up on your back, and they march you outside typically at a speed faster than you can walk, so the shackles scrape your legs. It’s horrible conditions, man; that’s solitary confinement.

Now at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, they are taking away books for guys that are in segregation. You have to meet a certain behavioral criteria to receive books. So, for guys in the old days like George Jackson, that was their only escape. Now you don’t even have that. They have taken that away.

Ryme: So much is going on and so much is going on without us realizing it, while really it’s our tax dollars and other countries’ goods and assets that are being pulled to do these things. When we learned that it was happening in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, we said that it is torture and we said it was unacceptable. And here we are in the back yard of the United States, where we sit comfortably in our houses looking at TV and crying over what happens to prisoners abroad, and this is going on.

The strike started this morning. Can you tell the listeners what exactly they can do to support it and for how long is it going to be going on?

Mac: It is going to be going on for a minimum of four days, about four days, Naji?

Naji: I’m not certain.

Mac: In any case, in any hunger strike we want it to be as brief as possible. These are men’s lives we are talking about here. After a couple of weeks, organs start to shut down and men start to die. The hunger strike in any case is a short campaign. It can’t go on forever.

Ryme: How can people get to know more about what’s going on?

Mac: Well, there is some contact information.

Naji: is the website up?

Mac: Yes, contact Virginiasolidraity@gmail.com and the website is Virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com.

Naji: There is also a group on Facebook dedicated to solidarity and support of the Virginia hunger strikers. There are tweets coming out at hashtag VA hunger strike.

Ryme: And also, for full disclosure, all the producers and hosts of this show and co-hosts are with the prisoner solidarity movements in different ways. I’m with Stop Mass Incarceration. Naji and Netfa [Freeman] also work on that. This issue is so serious that you’ve got to cross the line, and is there really a line? We are people and this is Voices with Vision.

Mac: I want to add something else. I want folks to, even in your personal space, start to humanize prisoners. There’s this widespread belief that most prisoners are in prison for some heinous violent act, and that is totally untrue. Most of these guys are in prison for drugs and drug related offenses, property crimes.

I was having a discussion a couple nights ago and I said that for me, I want to redefine what it means to be a political prisoner. Not just because you are in prison because of a political act, but most folks in prison are political prisoners because the basis of their incarceration is all built around a political agenda: The war on poverty, that’s a political agenda. The war on drugs, that’s a political agenda. So these guys are political prisoners. Even though they don’t know it, they are political prisoners.

So the way we stay in solidarity, man, is getting involved with whatever efforts folks doing on the ground – standing in solidarity with that – maybe even doing a hunger strike ourselves out here on the outside. Contact your legislators. Wherever you are, man, do whatever you can to show support to prisoners, because this isn’t a Virginia issue; this is a human rights issue.

This thing with Wells Fargo is still going on, so we’ve got to ramp that up a little bit.

Ryme: Well Fargo funding private prisons?

Mac: Wells Fargo, the biggest funder of Geo Group, the second largest provider of private prisons in this country.

Ryme: Thank you, Mac. This is really important to keep in the consciousness in the people.

Naji: Mac mentioned to contact the legislators. You can contact the state legislators in Virginia, or even if you don’t live in Virginia, the state legislators here. In Washington, the senators. Also send this out to different media outlets. Just support by getting the word out and by getting in touch with people whom you know to be possibly influential and helpful in this situation.

Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff can be reached at editor@sfbayview.com or (415) 671-0789.

Red Onion Prisoners Unite in a Hunger Strike Protesting Abuse

PLEASE SUPPORT, UPDATES AT http://virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com/

Red Onion Prisoners Unite in a Hunger Strike Protesting Abuse

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—MAY 21, 2012

Press Contacts: Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers

John Tuzcu /216.533.9925 / vasolidarity@gmail.com
Adwoa Masozi / 973.494.4266 / vasolidarity@gmail.com

What: Press Conference
When: 11 AM
Where: VA Department of Corrections, 6900 Atmore Dr. Richmond VA (at the DOC sign on the corner of Atmore and Wyck St.)

RICHMOND – On Tuesday May 22 as many as 45 prisoners at Red Onion State Prison, comprising at least 2 segregation pods, will enter the first day of a hunger strike protesting deplorable conditions in the prison and ongoing abuses by prison staff. For the men participating in the strike this is their only recourse to get Red Onion warden Randy Mathena to officially recognize their grievances and make immediate changes to food, sanitation and basic living conditions at the prison.

Supporters from DC and Virginia along with prisoner family members will hold a press conference at 11 AM in front of the VA Department of Corrections, in Richmond at 6900 Atmore Dr., to urge Warden Mathena, the Virginia Department of Corrections under Harold Clarke, Governor Bob McDonell, state Senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb and other state and congressional legislators to act on behalf of justice and human rights. ­­

A statement released by one of the hunger strike representatives said, “We’re tired of being treated like animals. There are only two classes at this prison: the oppressor and the oppressed. We, the oppressed, despite divisions of sexual preference, gang affiliation, race and religion, are coming together. We are rival gang members but now are united as revolutionaries.”

Some of the prisoner’s demands include the right to have fully cooked meals, the right to clean cells, the right to be notified of the purpose and duration of their detention in segregation, and a call for the end to indefinite segregation. Red Onion has been repeatedly criticized since it opened in 1998. A 1999 Human Rights Watch report on Red Onion concluded that the “Virginia Department of Corrections has failed to embrace basic tenets of sound correctional practice and laws protecting inmates from abusive, degrading or cruel treatment.”

After exhausting legal and administrative channels, prisoners are holding this hunger strike to bring these abusive prison conditions to light. This action comes at a time when many are speaking out against the expanding prison system in the United States in an effort to uphold their human dignity and basic human rights.

Letters signed by residents in Congressional District 9 will be delivered to the Senators office later in the week and concerned citizens from across Virginia and the nation will be pressuring the Virginia DOC to meet the prisoner’s demands.

Ten Demands of ROSP 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.

From bad to worse: attacked and then transferred from Red Onion to Wallens Ridge State Prison

From: SF Bay View
January 29, 2012

Transferred from Red Onion to Wallens Ridge State Prison

by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson

On Jan. 20, 2012, I was transferred from Virginia’s Red Onion to Wallens Ridge State Prison. This transfer came on the heels of a Dec. 12, 2011, incident where a large portion of my hair was ripped out by a Red Onion guard; an investigation was staged by Virginia Department of Corrections Internal Affairs agent Johnny Acosta, and I sent out an article and report on it all. Obviously, no coincidence.

From one set-up to another

On the morning of Jan. 20, I was confronted at my cell by Red Onion C-Building Unit Manager Michael Younce and Lt. Delmer Tate, who both lied telling me that agent Johnny Acosta wanted to speak with me in the prison’s video-court area. I was, upon being handcuffed and leg shackled, “escorted” by them to the prison’s transport area, put into a cell and told to strip down to be searched by security chief Kevin McCoy because I was “taking a trip.”

Numerous guards entered the area, including one Joseph Ely, a prior Red Onion guard who’d transferred to Wallens Ridge to be promoted to lieutenant. Ely was carrying transportation restraints and a 50,000 volt electric stun belt, which prisoners are made to wear when taken on road trips. I instantly realized I was being transferred to Wallens Ridge.

I asked McCoy several times about my property. He assured it’d be right behind me. It wasn’t. It was all left at Red Onion, where much of it will likely be destroyed, “lost” and taken.

McCoy attempted to provoke a situation by having me given a pair of pants to wear that were too small. I refused to wear them. After a standoff, I was given a pair in the correct size, restrained, belted and taken to a transport van. Inside the van, I was crushed and locked inside a tiny steel cage measuring about 5 feet high and 2 by 2 feet square, in which I could barely move.

Once on the road, Ely asked if I knew where I was going. I answered, “Obviously to Wallens Ridge.” He then asked did I really not know I was being transferred? I told him no, that I was told I was going to see someone. He added, “You know why you’re going back, don’t you?” “Not really,” I answered. He then stated, “Well, you know a lot of people don’t like you. You probably won’t leave walking.” I was to receive numerous similar threats by guards that I was being sent to Wallens Ridge to be set up for violence.

Upon reaching Wallens Ridge, I was met by numerous guards, especially ranking guards, whom I’d known from my 2000-2003 confinement at Wallens Ridge. All displayed openly hostile attitudes. One of the guards, who was holding one of my arms and “escorting” me from the van to the intake area, Dixon, repeatedly dug his fingers into my right arm. I was also accompanied during this walk by two large dogs barking loudly and straining wildly against their leashes.

I went through the strip search and endured another standoff over too-small clothes, by Sgt. Cochrane and Lt. Swiney, both obviously trying to provoke a situation to “justify” using violence. So I relented and wore the clothes for the brief walk to the unit.

I was leg-shackled, cuffed from behind and “escorted” by a mob of guards to the D-3 housing unit. Every cell in the unit was empty. I was put into D-301, one of only two cells in the block with a steel box approximately 8 by 12 by 18 inches with a Plexiglas cover, welded to the outside of a cell door and around the opening in the door through which food and other items are passed and handcuffs applied and removed. I was made to kneel to have the leg shackles removed and to put my hands outside the slot into the box where the handcuffs were removed. I then removed my hands from the box and a steel plate was slid in place across the door opening, closing off access to the box.

Rashid was assaulted by staff at Red Onion on Dec. 12. He has a dislocated shoulder and is yet to receive proper medical attention. He had a 3 by 7 inch swath of hair pulled out by the roots. This occurred when he refused to turn his back on an officer as he came out of the exercise cage. Please contact VDOC Director Harold Clarke at (804) 674-3000.

Cochrane and Swiney came to the door in turns, repeating the same threats Ely had made, adding that “this time there won’t be any witnesses,” indirectly referring to my placement in a completely empty unit. Major Combs then came to the cell asking if I’d changed, commenting that I’d gotten grey hair since last he’d seen me and was “getting old.” Every guard I’ve encountered from then to now has been invariably hostile, and verbally insulting. I’ve been called a “nigger” no less than 15 times and subjected to numerous homosexual taunts in efforts to provoke and enrage me, which I pay no mind to. One guard, R. Ricketts has gone out of his way to repeatedly verbally taunt and threaten me with abuses to come.

I’ve had my meals and beverages dropped into the visibly filthy box on the door which is never cleaned, indeed it can’t be where it contains rust, peeling paint, fermented food and beverages residue, and one must place dirty clothes, shoes, toilet cleaning items, etc. into the box to be searched by or exchanged with guards. Using the box for meal service is a per se health hazard. Not only is my food contaminated by being placed into direct contact with the box’s surfaces, but I’ve found paint particles, dirt, lint, etc. in my food and beverages from the box.

I was also brought clothes by Swiney that had been sprayed with mace or gas. I’ve been kept incommunicado – denied phone use, all property and kept in a completely empty unit.

I’ve also received two trays with foods containing broken pieces of metal and rocks. Guards, including Cochrane, refuse to provide me with or to accept for filing forms needed to pursue emergency and other grievances and complaints. I had to go through a Lt. Bergan to obtain complaint forms from Cochrane, who then gave me only two out of five requested by me.

The Dec. 12, 2011, assault where my hair was ripped out was preceded by threats by the assaulting guard, in that I’m now being faced with a consistent series of threats by a staff known to abuse and even kill prisoners – which I’ll elaborate on below. It is important that this situation be made known as broadly as possible. I believe outside exposure, support and pressure has kept many of the more serious, violent official intentions at bay. These threats under the circumstances must be taken very seriously.

Wallens Ridge: A nest of vipers

Several of the threats here have been accompanied by guards making disparaging remarks about me being a “protester,” “Black Panther” etc., often accompanied by racial slurs. It is well known that Black prisoners known to challenge or protest abuses or who are politically active are abuse targets at Wallens Ridge. John Gaskins, aka Mac, who was recently released from Wallens Ridge, has been both witness and victim. While at the prison, he witnessed prisoners inclined to protest being set up by guards, beaten and thrown into segregation. He was himself, for this reason, set up on a false infraction and thrown in segregation until he was released from Virginia’s prisons. He expected to be beaten by the guards himself at any time.

Rashid explains: “This method of ‘escorting’ segregation prisoners is used ostensibly so guards can maintain complete control while remaining behind the prisoner so he cannot butt, spit or otherwise assault them and can be easily maneuvered to place and pinned against a wall. During such escorts, guards are to remain behind and to the side of the prisoner.”

A—-, aka Outlaw, the prisoner with whom I engaged in written political exchanges in my book, “Defying the Tomb,” was also brutally beaten and hospitalized at Wallens Ridge a couple years ago.

In my prior update/article, I discussed a 2001 beating by three ranking Wallens Ridge guards of a Black prisoner, last name Plummer, which resulted in the guards being prosecuted. The charges were circumvented by the entire prison’s staff coming together to stage a scene at the prison to sway the jury to acquit the guards, and the investigator – Johnny Acosta – who found the guards to have assaulted Plummer, was in turn sued by them. Many of the guards involved in that coverup still work at Wallens Ridge, including Major Combs, Cochrane, Swiney etc.

Prisoners have also been killed by Wallens Ridge officials or at their prompting. Most recent was the controversial killing of Harvey Lee Watson by his cellmate, Robert Gleason, who pled guilty to the killing and implicated Wallens Ridge staff as complicit and responsible. Several were fired after the fact, when autopsies found Watson had been dead for half a day when discovered by guards inside the cell.

The guards had falsified records, claiming they’d been making routine checks of the prisoners. However, those who caused his death were passed over. Gleason personally told me numerous times that he only realized after killing Watson that Wallens Ridge officials had used him, set him up to kill Watson to remove a thorn from their side. He vowed to plead guilty to the killing and to use the case to expose what they’d done. Which he did, to no avail.

In that case, they wanted to silence Watson, who kept protesting that officials had knowingly transported him from Sussex One State Prison in Waverly, Virginia, to Wallens Ridge with a dead prisoner sitting with him in the van. Watson had also just set his cell on fire the night before being transferred and had recently set another prisoner on fire.

He had outstanding punitive segregation sentences to serve and was not supposed to have been released to population. He also was supposed at all times to have been housed in cells alone, even in population, due to his mental health status. However, ranking Wallens Ridge officials and the counselor, wife of Lt. A. Gallihar, conspired to put Watson in Gleason’s cell in population. Gleason was known to have been convicted, suspected and charged with numerous killings. Officials felt he was their man for the job.

In the cell, Gleason complained to staff counselor Gallihar, ranking officials, the warden, even people on the outside that Watson was sick and needed to be moved out of his cell before he was forced into a drastic reaction. Watson would drink urine, masturbate in the open, talk loudly to himself all times of night etc. Lt. Gallihar, his wife and others told Gleason, “You know how to deal with it,” refusing to move Watson.

Gleason admittedly snapped and killed Watson. The scandal has been widely reported in the media and Gleason is open about what happened and why. The day after the killing, A. Gallihar, who wasn’t at the prison the day of the killing, fabricated an incident report as though he was, on his wife’s behalf to cover for her.

During or about 2003, a white Connecticut prisoner was strangled to death by Wallens Ridge guards who claimed the death a suicide hanging. A similar attack was attempted against another white prisoner, Michael Austin, now confined at Red Onion, during or about 2010. The guards disliked Austin because he’d grown up around and embraced Black urban culture and clashed with the prison’s rural white guards who’d ridicule him and try to influence him with racist values.

In his case, guards premeditatedly rushed into his cell, claiming falsely he was attempting to hang himself, put a thick string around his neck and began choking him. Their designs to strangle him to death were foiled only because the string broke.

During 2003, another Connecticut prisoner, a Black man named Lawrence Frazier, was electrocuted to death by numerous Wallens Ridge guards while he was restrained to a steel bed frame by his extremities. The death was dismissed as caused by insulin shock, however an examining doctor found the electrocutions contributed to, if not caused, his death.

A documentary, “Up the Ridge,” was filmed by a local radio group exposing the racism and abuses surrounding the prison and reporting on Frazier’s killing.

During 2001, I was myself the victim of a brutal assault by a mob of Wallens Ridge guards, including two who beat Plummer just months later. In my case, I was drawn out of my segregation cell while fully unrestrained by a guard G. Sexton, inviting me to an off-the-record one-on-one fight – what we call “a fair one” in prison. His intentions, however, weren’t to fight but to set me up for a mob attack.

Sexton never once put up a fight, but was knocked down almost immediately and began screaming for backup. I was subdued without resisting and upon being handcuffed and shackled was repeatedly kicked in the face and head, electrocuted with multiple 50,000 volt stun weapons, had all but three of my then almost 2-foot-long dreadlocks systematically ripped out, and was left with multiple facial lacerations that had to be stitched closed, burns across my upper body and arms, and blood red and purple contusions covering the entire whites of my eyes across their front halves.

The attack was covered up by Wallens Ridge officials at all levels and Internal Affairs agents who destroyed pod surveillance camera footage of the attack, moved all vocal prisoner witnesses to other units and colluded on reports claiming all my injuries were inflicted by Sexton defending himself against an unanticipated attack by me when the cell “accidentally” opened. At first they’d claimed I opened it, whereas Sexton himself told guards in the control booth to open it.

What’s more, Wallens Ridge’s present warden, Gregory Halloway, has subjected me to extensive past torture while a unit manager at Greensville Correctional Center, during 1998. At that time he kept me on an illegal status, called “white cell status,” when I was left for eight months, even during winter, with nothing inside the cell but one pair of boxer shorts. No property was permitted. I could not even brush my teeth and ended up having to have several filled for cavities as a result. I was only allowed a mattress and bedding from 10 p.m. through 6 a.m. I contracted the flu, sinus infections and colds. Throughout the white cell confinement, my cell window to the outside was broken, letting in freezing cold outside temperatures.

While on white cell status, Holloway accused me of knocking him unconscious in the medical department while my blood pressure was being taken with my hands cuffed, supposedly in response to his torturing me. I remained on white cell status until I was transferred to Red Onion in 1998 from Greensville.

Therefore not only is Holloway an official who’s known to illegally torture and abuse – and will admit having me on that illegal status – but one who has cause for vengeance against me. It is highly unlikely I can expect to receive any semblance of just treatment under him, nor that he would act to prevent threatened abuses. Indeed it is probable that he is privy to such abuses.

Furthermore, Holloway is but a token Black figurehead, recently appointed to Wallens Ridge to counter a widespread image and reputation for racism like at Red Onion. Similarly, at Red Onion, a token Black warden was appointed in the early 2000s, under whose supervision racism and abuse escalated. Indeed, he went out of his way to avoid making waves with the local entrenched white supremacist status quo that de facto ran Red Onion, as it does Wallens Ridge.

Dark faces in high places is today’s chief tactic for masking institutionalized racism.
Conclusion

If officials did not send me to Wallens Ridge with deviant designs, then this admits I qualify to be housed at any other Virginia Department of Corrections prison of the same Level 5 security classification, such as Sussex One or Two State Prisons, where a more racially diverse and tolerant staff exists. At Wallens Ridge and Red Onion, I and other politically active prisoners and those who challenge abuses have been targeted in a clear pattern with official violence and abuse.
This icon of the California hunger strikes, now recognized around the world, was drawn by brilliant artist and writer Rashid Johnson. It inspired 12,000 prisoners in California and more across the U.S. and as far away as Palestine and Australia to defy the state by starving themselves.

It’s my request to supporters and readers to raise as much protest and awareness about this situation as possible and press for my reassignment to a less volatile and more racially diverse and tolerant environment, such as the Sussex prisons. And to also be aware of the foul conditions that we live under on these razor wire plantations. For me, it just went from bad to worse.

Dare to struggle! Dare to win!

All Power to the People!

About Rashid and how you can help

Kevin “Rashid” Johnson is a long-time revolutionary prison organizer, accomplished artist, Marxist theoretician and the Minister of Defense of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party-Prison Chapter (NABPP-PC). He has been held in segregation for the past 19 years, since 1993. Some of his writings have been published in the book “Defying the Tomb” (Kersplebedeb, 2010), available from leftwingbooks.net and AK Press. Its foreword is by Russell “Maroon” Shoats, introduction by Tom Big Warrior and afterword by Sundiata Acoli.

More of his writings and artwork are featured on his website, rashidmod.com. In 2011, from Virginia, Rashid added his voice to those of thousands supporting the demands of California prisoners hunger-striking against isolation torture; his writings have been banned in many California prisons.

To read Rashid’s account of deteriorating conditions at Red Onion State Prison and the assault by guards on Dec., 12, 2011, see rashidmod.com. Rashid can be contacted at:

Kevin Johnson, 1007485,
Wallens Ridge State Prison,
P.O. Box 759,
Big Stone Gap, VA 24219

Supporting Prisoners and Acting for Radical Change (SPARC) is a non-sectarian revolutionary mass organization based in Virginia and Washington, D.C., focused on building effective opposition to the prison-industrial complex. SPARC is demanding that the staff of Red Onion and Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) cease their consistent campaign of targeted physical violence, harassment and administrative repression against the cadre of the NABPP-PC, which is clearly being carried out with the intention of suppressing the basic human and democratic rights of prisoners in VDOC facilities. Furthermore, SPARC supports Rashid’s request to be transferred to a less hostile environment, for instance one of the Sussex prisons.

Sign the petition: A petition to support an end to political repression against the NABPP can be downloaded from http://www.kersplebedeb.com/vdoc_petition.pdf. It is also posted as an online petition at Change.org. Spread the word!

Protest to the director of corrections: People are also encouraged to contact VDOC Director Harold Clarke in support of these demands:
Harold W. Clarke, Director,
Department of Corrections,
P.O. Box 26963,
Richmond, VA 23261-6963.
His phone is (804) 674-3119, fax (804) 674-3509 and email harold.clarke@vadoc.virginia.gov.

Please send copies of all correspondence to SPARC, P.O. Box 345, Floyd VA, 24091.

SPARC can also reached by email at sparcdc@hush.com or sparc@signalfire.org or search “Supporting Prisoners and Acting for Radical Change” on Facebook for regular updates and news.

Meet Rashid’s comrade Feb. 11 in NYC: Those in the New York City area who wish to learn more about Rashid and conditions in Virginia’s prisons are encouraged to attend the book event:

“Defying the Tomb: Struggle, Education, Survival and Liberation in Lock-Down,”
to be held at
Bluestockings Bookstore,
172 Allen St.,
New York, NY 10002,
on Saturday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. The featured speaker is Rashid’s comrade, John “Mac” Gaskins, who was in a neighboring cell with Rashid while at Red Onion and was recently released from the tombs of Wallens Ridge. It promises to be an evening where words will not be minced!

The Bay View thanks Kersplebedeb for typing and transmitting this letter with afterword. Kersplebedeb can be reached at info@kersplebedeb.com.

Change.org|Plz Sign for Kevin Rashid!Thank You! »

Solitary Confinement in Virginia’s Prisons

From: SolitaryWatch
by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella
Jan. 9th 2012

For anyone who missed it, this front page article in Sunday’s Washington Post gives excellent coverage to the widespread use of solitary confinement in Virginia’s state prisons. It begins with a glance at one of the nation’s most notorious supermax prisons, Red Onion, and then goes on to discuss efforts to limit the use of solitary in Virginia–which include both a lawsuit and a possible legislative initiative.

At Red Onion State Prison, built on a mountaintop in a remote pocket of southwest Virginia, more than two-thirds of the inmates live in solitary confinement.

In a state where about 1 in 20 prisoners are held in solitary, Red Onion, a so-called supermax prison, isolates more inmates than any other facility, keeping more than 500 of its nearly 750 charges alone for 23 hours a day in cells the size of a doctor’s exam room…

As more becomes known about the effects of isolation — on inmate health, public safety and prison budgets — some states have begun to reconsider the practice, among them Texas, which, like Virginia, is known as a law-and-order state…

Now critics have set their sights on Virginia, where lawyers and inmates say some of the state’s 40,000 prisoners, including some with mental-health issues, have been kept in isolation for years, in one case for 14 years…

The Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents 12 inmates in isolation in Virginia, has requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which recently launched a probe into a 1,550-bed Pennsylvania prison where inmates complain of long periods of isolation and a lack of mental-health treatment…

A group of legislators…have been visiting prisons, including Red Onion, to examine how their most violent inmates are treated. Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who is leading the effort, said he will urge the General Assembly to study ways to limit the use of solitary confinement and offer more treatment before inmates are released.

The story does a good job of explaining how solitary confinement became common practice in Virginia–and throughout the United States. Factors include the explosion in sentencing–and with it the boom in prison building–as well as the increasing criminalization of the mentally ill.

Although solitary confinement has long been a tool of prison discipline (and a staple of pop culture depictions of prison life), the use of solitary became increasingly common in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, many legal and medical experts have argued that inmates in isolation for long periods suffer from higher suicide rates, increased depression, decreased brain function and hallucinations…

Virginia opened Red Onion — deep in coal country and about 400 miles from Richmond — a dozen years ago as part of a major prison-building effort after the abolishment of parole and the lengthening of prison sentences. Like many other supermax prisons, Red Onion was designed to confine — but not necessarily rehabilitate — the most-dangerous criminals.

As of October, 505 of 745 inmates at Red Onion were in solitary, according to the state. When legislators toured Red Onion on Sept. 1, prison officials told them that 173 inmates in solitary there were considered mentally ill.

State officials said they do not keep statistics on the length of isolation stays, but they told Hope in a recent memo that Red Onion inmates have been isolated from two weeks to almost seven years, with an average stay of 2.7 years.

Unsurprisingly, Post reporter Anita Kumar encountered resistance and obfuscation when she sought information for the story: “Virginia officials were reluctant to answer questions from The Washington Post about the practice of solitary confinement. In some instances, they provided contradictory information to The Post and legislators; at other times, they declined to talk about the use of solitary confinement.”

Read the full article here.