Stop treating us like animals

May 24, 2012

On May 22, as many as 45 inmates at Virginia's Red Onion State Prison began a hunger strike against what they say are deplorable conditions in the prison and ongoing abuses by prison staff. That same day, family members and advocates held a press conference in front of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), in Richmond, Va.

Red Onion is a prison in Southwest Virginia that was originally built as a Supermax prison for the so-called "worst of the worst." Since its opening in 1998, it has grown to house approximately 750 inmates from Virginia and outside the state. More than 500 of those inmates are kept in segregation--isolated for 23 hours a day in small cells. In addition to solitary confinement practices, the prison is notorious for its poor medical and mental health care, and general mistreatment of inmates. Despite a 1999 Human Rights Watch report that detailed abuses at the prison, inmates say such practices continue.

In a statement, one of the hunger strike representatives explained the solidarity behind the hunger strike: "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."

Here, we reprint the demands of the Red Onion State Prison Hunger Strikers.

Ten demands of Red Onion State Prison hunger strikers

We (prisoners at Red Onion State Prison) demand the right to an adequate standard of living while in the custody of the state!

1. We demand fully cooked food, and access to a better quality of fresh fruit and vegetables. In addition, we demand increased portions on our trays, which allows us to meet our basic nutritional needs as defined by VDOC regulations.

2. We demand that every prisoner at ROSP have unrestricted access to complaint and grievance forms and other paperwork we may request.

3. We demand better communication between prisoners and higher-ranking guards. Presently, higher-ranking guards invariably take the lower-ranking guards' side in disputes between guards and prisoners, forcing the prisoner to act out in order to be heard. We demand that higher-ranking guards take prisoner complaints and grievances into consideration without prejudice.

4. We demand an end to torture in the form of indefinite segregation, through the implementation of a fair and transparent process whereby prisoners can earn the right to be released from segregation. We demand that prison officials completely adhere to the security point system, insuring that prisoners are transferred to institutions that correspond with their particular security level.

Solidarity activists hold a press conference outside a Department of Corrections office in Virginia
Solidarity activists hold a press conference outside a Department of Corrections office in Virginia

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 third-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 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.

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