Do They Shoot Prisoners In Virginia?

Read the diametrically opposed views of David Baugh, criminal defense attorney;
Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections;
and the Human Rights Watch report.

Report by Theodora Statoff

Has America Descended Into the Dark Ages?

Emphatically yes, answers criminal defense attorney David Baugh, who is hoping to win a multi-mlllion dollar lawsuit against the Director of the Department of Corrections in Virginia, on behalf of three maximum-security prison inmates. Mr. Baugh has taken the case on contingency basis because "it has merit", and because he believes passionately in constitutional rights for all. He paints a gory picture of a high security penitentiary - prisoners get shot at for not walking in a single file, for overstepping a red line, for not interrupting an outdoor exercise on cue... the list is endless.

Not so, insists Gary Bass, Classifications Director at the DOC. While it is correct that Virginia is one of only three states to keep shotguns on the inside - and to use them on inmates! - he assures this writer that "rubber and buckshot bullets are only used to maintain order and security". There is no segregation (except in "special circumstances"), and good behavior is rewarded. How? By gradual re-classification into lower security prisons.

No hope of rehabilitation, then? Well, no... Virginia voted to abolish parole.

David Baugh describes vividly the injuries of two inmates he represents - they were shot by guards while taking recreation in the prison's courtyard. One has an ink-like pattern of buckshot wounds on his back, while the other has lost an eye.

The law allows for non-lethal intervention, and only when warranted, Baugh states. The disproportionate amount of force used against unarmed people flies in the face of civilized behavior, and would seem to justify Amnesty International's latest choice of focus on human rights abuse - the United States of America.

I ask about prosecutors, judges, impoverished defendants, and Virginia's notorious Court of Appeals. It doesn't get any better...

Baugh on prosecutors - "Conviction enhances a prosecutor's political career to the extent where a perfectly nice man becomes wistfully nefarious, especially if prosecuting a high profile case".

On Judges - he quotes G.K. Chesterton, chuckling, "Not all judges are whores..."

On the VA Court of Appeals - "One of the least intelligent courts in America - lawless, in fact".

On the correlation between wealth and justice - "Defense lawyers are paid a pittance, so they end up subsidizing a poor defendant, when this is the responsibility of the state - by law!"

And yes, money does make a difference!

What does all this signify for the "greatest democracy in the world"? David Baugh blames iniquity on the politicizing of the judicial process... on the "good old boy network", on the parochial nature of courts - all of these are real problems, he asserts. Plus, prisoners' constitutional rights have never been a vote-winning issue...

Speaking of prisoners' rights, my inquiries yield accounts of unrivaled brutality. An inmate at Red Onion (a supermax in Wise County, VA), who, for reasons unknown, has been segregated for months (for "segregation", read solitary confinement), has recently been subjected as well to a 24-hour "5 point restraint". Shackled to his bed, wearing nothing but shorts, with cold air blowing over him, he had incurred the wrath of the guards, and subsequent punishment, for kicking the door of his cell four times.

Reading through the Human Rights Watch report on penal establishments in general, and in particular on Red Onion State Prison, one is left with a feeling of outrage at this form of institutionalized abuse of power.

When I ask the Virginia DOC to comment on the report, I am met with total silence. Then I ask Larry Traylor for further comment on DOC Director Ronald Angelone's reported dismissal of rehabilitation for prisoners with long term sentences... on fostering a war-like environment where one side holds the weapons and the keys, and the other is totally stripped of resources. Mr. Traylor, the Communications Director for the DOC, at first sent me a short e-mail, promising to reply "as soon as possible".; After a significant wait, he finally sent the following...

Here are your questions and my answers:


Are you aware of the Human Rights Watch report on Red Onion? If so, in your opinion, does it paint a true picture of conditions there? You must agree that it is a chilling report.


Absolutely not, it does not paint a true picture. This report is biased and unbalanced, based only on the accounts of convicted felons with a documented history of insurrection and lying. At no time did Human Rights Watch request or include an interview or statement from any Virginia Dept. of Corrections official, staff member or Correctional Officer. Human Rights Watch knows that Virginia's system is constitutionally sound and principled.

(Note: I have attached a detailed document describing this Department's description/purpose for Red Onion which rebuts many, if not all, allegations)


I have interviewed David Baugh on the law suit against Mr. Angelone. Any comments?


I cannot comment on any current litigation.


Do inmates get shot at and injured as a result?


This Department does not punish an inmate for practicing his First Amendment rights.


Is it correct that Mr. Angelone does not subscribe to the penal principle of rehabilitating inmates if they have very long sentences?


No, any inmate that is cooperative and willing to rehabilitate himself has the opportunity for work and educational programs within the Virginia system. There will always be a percentage of inmates in any correctional system, by their actions in society and while incarcerated, that have proven they have no desire to better themselves.

General population inmates at Red Onion have the opportunity to work or participate in classes. If they are cooperative and do not incur disciplinary infractions, they have the opportunity to transfer to a less secure facility for even more educational opportunities. As in society, inmates must prove they are worthy of such consideration.


Would you let me interview any inmates in any max. security prison - in the interests of a balanced report?


Yes, if the inmate agrees to be interviewed and if the inmate is not currently in segregation for disciplinary problems. If you provide me with the name of the inmate you wish to interview, I will help to arrange a telephone or face-to-face meeting.

No inmate will suffer intimidation or repudiation for exercising his First Amendment rights. This goes against all constitutional correctional principals.

I don't know who told you interviews would not be allowed but this is another example of misinformation this Department deals with every day.

Larry Traylor
Director of Communications
Virginia Dept. of Corrections


Access to Justice home