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Virginia inmate, at odds with prison officials and white supremacist gang, fears for his life

Virginia inmate, at odds with prison officials and white supremacist gang, fears for his life

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A state inmate contends his life is in danger after acting as an informant for the Virginia Department of Corrections against the Aryan Brotherhood, a violent white supremacist prison gang.

In a pending federal suit and in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch last week, Joshua Wayne Phelps alleges the gang has placed a statewide KOS, or “kill on sight,” order against him and that the department will not place him in protective custody or move him to another state.

“I’m trying to keep from getting hit. They’re talking about stabbing me and I got six years left,” said Phelps, 30, now being held at the high-security Red Onion State Prison and serving a 17-year sentence for nonviolent convictions in Pittsylvania County.

Phelps said, “I’m just trying to make it home to my mother.”

Phelps filed a complaint against prison officials in federal court in Roanoke in April. The Department of Corrections will not comment on Phelps’ allegations, which are pending in court.

Phelps said in a telephone interview Tuesday that there was no way he would have filed a public lawsuit identifying himself as an informant and making himself a marked man if it was not true.

“There’s nowhere I can go now that people ain’t going to know what I done,” he said.

The Department of Corrections disagrees. In a written response to a grievance filed by Phelps against prison officials earlier this year, he was notified that: “It is reported by investigational staff there is no substantiating evidence to support your claims of your life being in jeopardy.”

The department said Phelps’ institutional history shows he has been moved from one prison to another 12 times in less than 12 years — including an unusual move between prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic — indicating a less than smooth life behind bars.

Lisa Kinney, a department spokeswoman, acknowledged there are gangs among the state’s 29,000 inmates. The Bloods, Crips and white supremacists — including the Aryan Brotherhood — are the three largest. She said there are some gang-related assaults and fights at times.

Offenders who assist investigations into gang activity or other lawbreaking by other inmates are protected by the department, and they can even be moved to another state if necessary, Kinney said.

“One method used to curtail [gang] activities inside the prisons is internal transfer to a higher level, more restrictive prison setting. For probationers, curfews and electronic monitoring are used for problematic cases,” Kinney wrote in an email.

In July, Rabbi Charles Feinberg, with the Interfaith Action for Human Rights, wrote to state officials seeking help for Phelps and another prisoner, who “make credible claims for protective custody,” and who were then being held in restrictive housing for an inordinately long period of time at the Keen Mountain Correctional Center in Buchanan County.

Phelps, wrote Feinberg, “feels extremely unsafe and reports being harassed not only by other prisoners, but by officers at Keen Mountain, who have allegedly identified him as a ‘snitch’ to other prisoners, told him he deserves whatever he gets for ‘snitching’ on the Aryan Brotherhood, ransacked his cell as retaliation for filing complaints and grievances, and threatened to plant knives in his cell. He wants to be transferred to another state.”

While in the restrictive housing unit, Phelps has been subjected to restrictions that are punitive, as well as unnecessary and inappropriate to his need for protection, Feinberg wrote.

Last month, Phelps wrote to U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou in Roanoke, who is now handling his suit that alleges the department is violating his rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

Phelps told the court that the Department of Corrections has evidence he cooperated with prison authorities, including recordings of him speaking with investigators.

“They all admitt [sic] that the gang, the ‘Aryan Brotherhood’ has put a kill order on me and that I am no longer safe in this Jurisdiction,” Phelps wrote in a document filed in federal court on July 31. He asked the court to approve a subpoena for the recordings.

He added, “I should have been placed in Protective custody but instead, they have chosen to put me in known enemy territory and have been responsible for my Long term segregation in solitary confinement.”

Phelps contends the department may be at odds with him because he has frequently filed grievances and complaints over the years.

The FBI identifies the Aryan Brotherhood as a violent white supremacist gang that formed in the California state prison system in the late 1960s.

The Southern Poverty Law Center said it was founded by Irish bikers to protect white inmates in newly desegregated prisons and that today, it is “the largest and deadliest prison gang in the United States, with an estimated 20,000 members inside prisons and on the streets.”

The Anti-Defamation League said the gang uses a variety of symbols, but the most common remains a shamrock, often in combination with a swastika.

A Department of Corrections’ photograph of an inmate who Phelps said is top figure in the gang — and who Phelps says he informed on while at the Pocahontas Correctional Center in Tazewell County — shows he has a shamrock tattoo.

Phelps said he was a teenager when he entered the prison system and wound up in the gang.

“I didn’t know no better,” he said. “I ended up getting around some dudes that I thought were alright dudes.”

Phelps was transferred to the Pocahontas Correctional Center in 2018.

“I decided I wanted to get out [of the gang],” he said. “It wasn’t what I wanted to be a part of, so I started working with the investigators being a confidential informant.”

“They was putting out hits on white dudes — robbing and extorting white dudes,” Phelps said.

He said he was told, “’You need to go get your hands dirty and I was like, ‘Look, that ain’t what I signed up for.’”

Phelps was placed in segregation for a disciplinary infraction last year and he said that while there, he got word the brotherhood had learned he had been informing and issued a hit on him. He said he asked not to be placed back into general prison population.

“I know there’s no way if I go to population, I’m going to be able to make it home,” he said.

“I refused to go. They sent me to the STAR program at Keen Mountain. I notified officials, I let ’em know, like, the Aryan Brotherhood’s got a hit out on me and I knew members of the Aryan Brotherhood that was in population at Keen Mountain.”

The Department of Corrections said the STAR program is for offenders who do not have behavior problems but who refuse to enter general population. Participants are held in a restrictive housing setting where the goal is to transition them to general population.

“While I was in the STAR program there, I got numerous messages from members of the Aryan Brotherhood letting me know that as soon as I got to population there was a KOS ordered on me ... for telling on members,” he said.

He said he told officials he did not want to be in the STAR program, which would lead him back to general population.

Keen Mountain officials turned down his grievance request to be transferred to an out-of-state facility.

The written response to his grievance, which Phelps filed in federal court, says: “You state that you have been an informant to DOC investigators. You state that your ‘8th Amendment’ rights are being violated due to being forced into general population within the VADOC. You state that you cannot go to general population due to fear for your safety.”

Offenders requesting transfers must meet certain established criteria, officials wrote.

“Upon a protracted review of your institutional records, it is evidenced that you do not meet the established criteria set forth within the governing operating procedure,” they said.

Officials wrote that Phelps was transferred to the high-security Red Onion State Prison after threatening that if released from restrictive housing, “He would ‘get a knife and take care of the issue’. Due to the seriousness of this infraction and his current security level, offender Phelps was approved for transfer to a level 5 facility.”

Phelps said the knife threat resulted from his warning the prison that he would defend himself if attacked by the gang. “If I step foot out here in population, these dudes are going to come at me.”

“It’s not a situation I’m willing to go put my life in. If somebody told you, ‘Hey, look, if you come out here, we’re going to kill you.’ And these dudes — most of these dudes ain’t never going home — you would be crazy to put yourself in that situation and go out there,” he said.

Phelps’ mother, Deborah Watson of Danville, said, “He’s kept me out of the loop a lot as far as what’s happened from one prison to the other, and I’m grateful, I really am, because it really bothers me.”

“With the gangs and everything ... it sounds like a nightmare to me,” said Watson, who recently suffered a stroke. “It scares me for when he gets out, but it scares me more, him being up there — I mean, how safe can they keep him?”

She said, “It’s a nightmare, is what it is.”

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