Officials say recent allegations of assaults and other abuse by staff on inmates at Wallens Ridge State Prison made by an advocacy group have been or are being investigated and that thus far none have proven to be founded.
“We investigate all allegations and the investigations are done by our special investigations unit, which is comprised of sworn law enforcement officers,” said Lisa Kinney, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Last week the Interfaith Action for Human Rights wrote an email to Brian Moran, the Virginia secretary of public safety, inquiring about seven alleged cases of staff abuse of named and unnamed inmates at Wallens Ridge State Prison.
The advocacy group complained that it had brought allegations to the attention of the Virginia Department of Corrections and were told they would be investigated but that the IAHR, the prisoners and their families were not given any information indicating “that a serious, impartial investigation has been conducted.”
“We believe these reports are sufficiently credible on their face to warrant intervention at the highest levels to ensure there is a serious, thorough, and impartial investigation, including interviews with any and all witnesses and examination of relevant videotape and other evidence,” wrote Rabbi Charles Feinberg, the IAHR director.
Kinney said the IAHR has not been allowed to view video recordings of incidents taken by surveillance cameras inside prisons which, presumably, the prison investigators can view.
Nevertheless, Kinney said, “For those people that are named, there have been investigations or are active investigations. None of these cases are being ignored.”
“We’re going to take action against staff anytime that we find they have been abusive,” Kinney said, “Mistreatment of inmates won’t be tolerated. We have fired officers for mistreatment of inmates in the past, and officers have been prosecuted.”
On Monday, Kinney made a video recording available to The Times-Dispatch for viewing of one of the unnamed inmates — who the IAHR dubbed, “Mr. A.” The video shows his arrival at Red Onion State Prison from Wallens Ridge State Prison on Nov. 21, where he allegedly assaulted a staff member earlier that day.
According to the IAHR email, Mr. A, “Reportedly was severely beaten by three or more officers on November 21, 2020. He was subsequently transferred from Wallens Ridge to Red Onion and was allegedly beaten again after arriving at Red Onion. We are still trying to learn more; initial reports indicated that he may have initiated the conflict by striking an officer. Of course, if true, that is unacceptable, but cannot justify the kind of assault by multiple officers that was reported to IAHR.”
The 21-minute video taken by an officer with a hand-held camera showed the inmate being assisted out of the vehicle, his hands and ankles shackled and escorted into a wheelchair. The inmate appeared somewhat bent over and had to be assisted walking.
An officer could be heard referencing photographs taken of the inmates’ head and face and mention was made of a laceration. Kinney said the photographing was done to document how the inmate appeared upon arrival from Red Onion.
The video shows him being led from the sally port into the prison, through various gates and door, a strip search and then taken to his cell. The inmate was cooperative and no assault or abuse, physical or verbal, could be seen or heard.
The video of the alleged assault at Wallens Ridge State Prison earlier that same day that led to the transfer to Red Onion was not made available for viewing, however.
Kinney said video recordings inside prisons are subject to discretionary release under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act but generally are not released by the department for security and privacy reasons.
Recordings in cases where there are criminal or institutional investigations in progress, or pending criminal charges, are also not released — such as in the case of Mr. A, who allegedly assaulted staff at Wallens Ridge.
The Virginia Department of Corrections says that virtually all areas inside prisons are subject to video monitoring and recording except for inside cells and medical examination rooms. When security staff need to enter cells, hand-held cameras can be used.
The inmates, for the most part, know where the cameras are located and some allege assaults by staff happen in areas the cameras do not cover.
Benjamin Carter, one of the cases cited by the IAHR in its email to Moran, admitted in an interview with The Times-Dispatch that he struck an officer at Red Onion State Prison on May 19. He said he was beaten there and then assaulted again when he arrived at Wallens Ridge that same day.
Carter claims the assault took place when an officer leaned inside the vehicle — out of sight of any camera — where he was seated.
The Department of Corrections said the officer allegedly assaulted by Carter on May 19 at Red Onion was severely injured and has required numerous surgeries. The video of that attack was not made available for viewing because there may be charges placed in that case.
Carter, whose family and jail medical records say he has serious mental health issues, is already facing criminal charges in Greensville County for assaulting a staff member at the Greensville Correctional Center.
Asked why video recordings are not shown the IAHR, Kinney wrote in an email that: “Videos are not subject to mandatory release under FOIA [Freedom of Information Act].”
“A special dispensation was made in this case because of the allegations that have been made. Reporters have an ethical obligation to be honest about what they’ve seen; advocates don’t. Video is released in court cases, to the inmate (who can view it), attorneys, and the court, and may be public then if it becomes part of the court case and isn’t sealed,” she wrote.
Feinberg, with the IAHR, clarified in an email Tuesday, “The allegation concerning Mr. A was that he was assaulted at Wallens Ridge State Prison — before his transfer to Red Onion — and again after he completed his arrival at Red Onion, not when he entered the facility.”
“We appreciate that the DOC was willing to share some of the relevant videotape with the press. It is unfortunate that it feels constrained not to share the rest. Transparency helps better assure the safety of both prison inmates and correctional officers by assuring that correctional institutions treat residents with humanity and, if allegations of abuse are unfounded, vindicate correctional officials,” wrote Feinberg.
Moran said last week that his office had been meeting with the IAHR and another group over allegations but that the meetings ended in March along with COVID-19.
“We always find that communications help, so that these things, these allegations, do not fester,” said Moran. “We are very much in sync with them: if these allegations are true, we obviously want to address them as soon as possible.”