Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) is a supermax state prison for men, located on Red Onion Mountain, Wise County Virginia. Designed to incarcerate “the worst of the worst”, ROSP houses about 800 inmates, most of whom are held in 23 hour a day solitary confinement in 8x10 cells. Most often, inmates in solitary confinement at ROSP are doing time there because of violent behavior at other prisons, and not because of the crime they were convicted of. The amount of time that inmates have spent in solitary confinement at ROSP has ranged from a couple of weeks, to as much as fourteen years. The facility is designed to minimize physical contact between inmates and corrections officers, with food and medicine delivered on a tray through cell door fronts. Inmates who are allowed outdoor recreation do so inside individual cages in the yard. Education programs are conducted via pre-recorded video lessons.
ROSP has a long and troubling history of violence, murder and corruption. In 2010, an inmate named Aaron Cooper was strangled to death by another inmate named Robert Gleason, who was serving life for a murder committed on the streets in 2007, and for the murder of his cell mate in 2009. Gleason testified in court that he repeatedly told prison officials that if he was not sentenced to death, he would keep killing, a warning that was ignored. In a federal lawsuit brought by Cooper’s mother, evidence showed that Gleason conspired with corrections officers to ensure that the yard was clear of inmates and corrections officers, and that documented head counts would be forged to indicate that the yard was full of prisoners at the time of the murder. Gleason was ultimately sentenced to death for the murder, but is not scheduled to be executed any time soon.
In 1999, Human Rights Watch reported that conditions at ROSP “failed to embrace basic tenets of sound correctional practice and laws protecting inmates from abusive, degrading or cruel treatment” and that “racism, excessive violence and inhumane conditions reign inside.” Prisoners at ROSP are disproportionally African-American, compared to the population of Virginia. They further alleged that 173 of the inmates in solitary confinement at the time had been diagnosed with a mental illness, and that corrections officers at ROSP used firearms with live ammunition to handle disruptive inmates. The prison was also reported to use “five point restraints” excessively, which is when an inmate is restrained by ankle, knee, waist, wrist and forehead to a chair.
In May of 2012, a group of inmates at ROSP began a hunger strike to protest conditions at the prison. Their statement: “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.” Their demands included that they be given food that was “fully cooked”, adequate medical care, and unrestricted access to grievance forms. ROSP officials claimed that the hunger strike ended within a week, but outside supporters claim that prison officials said so in order to sweep the protest under the rug.
Lee Boyd Malvo is incarcerated at ROSP. One half of the “Beltway Sniper” duo, Malvo is serving six life sentences for the sniper shootings that killed 17 and injured 10 in 2002.