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The 5 Worst Prisons in Virginia

Virginia is home to some of the oldest and most notorious prisons in the United States. While efforts have been made in recent years to improve conditions, several facilities continue to struggle with issues like overcrowding, violence, and decaying infrastructure. This article will examine 5 of the worst prisons currently operating in the state of Virginia.

5. Sussex I State Prison

Located in Waverly, Sussex I State Prison is a maximum security facility that houses over 1,100 male inmates. The prison opened in 1998 and almost immediately developed a reputation for violence and disorder.

In the early 2000s, there were two major riots at Sussex I which resulted in extensive damage and multiple injuries. Prisoners have complained about severe overcrowding, inadequate medical treatment, and frequent lockdowns confining them to their cells for days or weeks. Assaults, both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff, occur regularly.

The prison’s remote location and antiquated design also pose problems. The nearest hospital is 30 minutes away, making emergency medical response difficult. Unlike newer prisons, Sussex I lacks air conditioning in most cell blocks, exposing inmates to sweltering temperatures in the summer.

4. Red Onion State Prison

Red Onion State Prison, located in Wise County, is Virginia’s only supermax facility, housing around 750 of the state’s most dangerous inmates. The prison opened in 1998 and houses maximum security inmates under the tightest controls and strictest isolation.

Inmates at Red Onion spend 22-24 hours per day locked in small solitary confinement cells. Human rights groups have denounced the harsh conditions at the prison, including lack of natural light, minimal human contact, and overuse of solitary confinement. Many prisoners have reported developing mental health problems due to prolonged isolation.

Violence is also a major issue, including fights between inmates and attacks on staff. Weapons fashioned from materials in the cells are frequently confiscated. The remote mountain location of the prison poses challenges as well, making visitation difficult for inmates’ families.

3. Wallens Ridge State Prison

Adjacent to Red Onion in Wise County sits Wallens Ridge State Prison, opened in 1999 to alleviate overcrowding. However, Wallens Ridge quickly developed all the same problems as its neighbor. The maximum security prison houses over 1,600 inmates in conditions of extreme isolation and deprivation.

In 2009, after a spate of suicides at Wallens Ridge, a federal judge denounced the prison’s “dehumanizing” conditions and lack of mental health care. Psychologists have attributed the suicides and high rates of self-harm among inmates to the severe isolation and hopelessness caused by such restrictive confinement.

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Wallens Ridge has also seen its share of violence – in 2017, two inmates were charged with strangling a fellow prisoner to death in his cell. Critics allege the prison fails to provide adequate safety to inmates who may be targeted by others.

2. Augusta Correctional Center

The Augusta Correctional Center in Craigsville has become notorious for its medical neglect of inmates, resulting in unnecessary suffering, disabilities, and deaths.

The prison houses around 1,100 inmates at varying security levels. But chronic understaffing of both security and healthcare workers means even basic needs often go unmet. Multiple lawsuits have been filed alleging failure to treat chronic and terminal diseases, provide medications and medical devices, or transport inmates experiencing medical emergencies.

Such medical neglect may have contributed to five inmate deaths between 2016 and 2020. Investigations have revealed disgusting conditions in Augusta’s infirmary, including insects in wounds and bedding soaked with bodily fluids.

Augusta’s rural location provides inadequate access to hospitals and specialists. The prison lacks adequate quality control and oversight measures to ensure proper delivery of medical care to vulnerable inmates.

1. Buckingham Correctional Center

Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn has been called the worst prison in Virginia due to its staggering number of inmate deaths, violence, and decaying facilities overcrowded with mental health cases.

The medium security prison houses around 1,100 inmates in cramped dormitories and cells. Multiple reports have drawn attention to an “excessively high mortality rate” from illnesses, suicides, homicides, and overdoses.

From January 1, 2017 to April 30, 2018, Buckingham had a total of 20 inmate deaths, giving it the highest mortality rate of any Virginia prison. A lack of mental health treatment, coupled with poor living conditions and availability of drugs, has proved deadly for vulnerable inmates.

Buckingham has also seen staggering levels of violence in recent years. In 2017 alone, the prison reported 7 inmates killed and 36 non-lethal stabbings and assaults with weapons. Several guards have been injured in attacks as well.

Advocates say chronic understaffing – Buckingham needs 3 times more medical personnel and 2 times more officers than currently employed – has made the prison unmanageable and unsafe. The ACLU calls the facility “dangerous, overcrowded and understaffed.”

Issues Plaguing Virginia’s Prisons

Virginia’s troubled prisons suffer from common, statewide problems leading to poor, unsafe conditions for those who live and work behind bars.

Overcrowding

With nearly 30,000 inmates in a system built for 24,000, overcrowding is rampant throughout Virginia’s prisons. Cells meant for a single person often house two, confining men for 23 hours a day in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Tensions and violence inevitably result.

Understaffing

Most Virginia prisons lack adequate staff to securely and safely manage inmates. Low pay and high turnover leads to chronic vacancies in security, medical, and programming positions. Buckingham, for example, needs 2 times more guards and 3 times more medical staff than currently employed. Such understaffing allows violence and disorder to flourate.

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Mental Health Needs

A study found over 60% of Virginia inmates have a mental illness, yet few get adequate treatment behind bars. Mentally ill inmates languish in isolation at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge. Such conditions lead to outbursts, self-harm, and deteriorating mental states.

Decaying Infrastructure

While Virginia has built modern prisons in recent decades, older facilities like Sussex I and Buckingham suffer from dilapidated, outdated buildings that endanger health and security. Problems like leaky roofs, broken windows, poor ventilation, exposed wiring, and rusting pipes abound in these deteriorating facilities.

Remote Locations

Newer prisons were intentionally built in remote locales far from families, hospitals, and programming opportunities. But such isolated locations create major drawbacks. Transporting sick inmates long distances delays critical treatment. Remote prisons like Red Onion and Wallens Ridge lack adequate access to specialists and hospitals. And distance makes visitation – which improves inmate behavior – difficult for families.

Paths Forward for Prison Reform

While the outlook remains bleak at some facilities, glimmers of hope exist for improving Virginia’s prisons. Some reform advocates suggest:

  • decreased use of solitary confinement – Leading medical groups oppose prolonged isolation of 23 hours a day or more. Virginia should limit its use to only brief periods for safety, not months or years causing lasting mental damage.
  • expanded inmate programming – More vocational, educational, and rehabilitative programs could reduce idleness and violence while improving inmates’ futures. Priority should go to vulnerable populations like the mentally ill.
  • sentencing reform – Changes sentencing for less serious crimes to prioritize community corrections over incarceration could help stem overcrowding and bloated prison populations. Early release of elderly, sick and well-behaved inmates could free space for programs.
  • hiring incentives – Boosting pay, improving benefits and retirement, offering bonuses can help recruit desperately needed security, programming and medical staff. Adequate personnel improves safety and inmate outcomes.
  • infrastructure investment – While costly, renovating outdated prisons or replacing decrepit facilities with modern designs improves living conditions, safety and security. Proper ventilation, cooling, utilities, and unit layout all impact prison operations.
  • independent oversight – Virginia currently lacks robust outside oversight of its prisons. Establishing independent review boards and investigators could increase transparency around problems and hold officials accountable for needed reforms.

While improving Virginia’s prisons won’t happen overnight, even modest changes could relieve some of the most inhumane conditions and outcomes for incarcerated people. With strong leadership and public pressure for reform, the worst prisons could become models of sensible security, rehabilitation and human dignity.

FAQs About Virginia’s Prisons

What are the oldest prisons still operating in Virginia?

The Virginia State Penitentiary and Powhatan Correctional Center are two of Virginia’s oldest operating prisons. The Virginia State Penitentiary first opened in 1800 and is still in use today. Powhatan opened in 1910 and continues to house inmates at medium security levels. Both were built well before modern standards for security, lighting, ventilation and more.

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Why were many Virginia prisons built in remote locations?

Starting in the 1990s, Virginia began building maximum security prisons like Red Onion, Wallens Ridge, and Sussex I in remote locations far from urban centers. The intention was to build on inexpensive rural land and minimize escapes by distancing prisons from highways and population centers prisoners might flee to. But the isolation has downsides for access to medical care, families and programming.

How has COVID-19 impacted Virginia’s prisoners?

Like other states, Virginia struggled to contain COVID-19 outbreaks in its crowded prisons. By December 2020, over 9,000 inmates had tested positive and 65 died statewide. Some prisons like Deerfield Correctional Center had infection rates over 25%. Critics say Virginia failed to implement policies like mass testing, isolation, PPE, and social distancing to protect incarcerated people in its prisons from COVID-19 outbreaks.

How have staffing shortages impacted Virginia prisons?

Chronic understaffing is a major issue. Red Onion should have about 300 more security staff according to a state study. Augusta Correctional needs triple its current medical staff. Such shortages leave prisoners unsafe, allows organized gangs to emerge, and leads to officers burning out from overwork. It stems largely from low pay that starts around just $32,000/year. Raising wages could boost recruitment and retention of qualified personnel.

What options exist besides prison for non-violent Virginia inmates?

For less serious crimes, Virginia could utilize alternatives to incarceration like probation, home monitoring, fines, community service, drug treatment and more. Virginia has taken small steps by releasing some non-violent inmates 90 days early during COVID. Groups like the ACLU argue more needs to be done to reduce overcrowding and reserve prisons for the truly dangerous instead of minor drug and property crimes.

Conclusion

Virginia’s prison system faces entrenched challenges from aging infrastructure to lack of mental health treatment. But even modest reforms could relieve some of the worst conditions for the men and women housed in facilities like Sussex I, Red Onion, and Buckingham. With a renewed focus and investment in improving safety, medical care, programming, and smart justice, Virginia’s prisons could become places of rehabilitation rather than desperation.

Acknowledging problems is the first step, followed by a commitment to evidence-based solutions that uphold human dignity for all, even those who have strayed from society’s rules and norms. There are paths forward if Virginia finds the political and moral resolve to pursue a more enlightened course.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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