Red Onion State Prison: Obstruction of Justice
"Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people, by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law: it invites every man to become a law unto himself."Olmstead v. U. S., 277 U. S. 439, 485 (1927)
In April 2007, Richard Rowlette became the new Assistant Warden at Red Onion State Prison (ROSP). Rowlette had previously worked at ROSP in the position of Security Chief from the time that the prison opened in 1998 until December 1999. During that time he was a principal administrative player and ringleader in the racist abuses that won ROSP its reputation for prisoner mistreatment. He was instrumental in helping ROSP gain national notoriety as one of the country's most abusive prisons.
Since his promotion to Assistant Warden, I have filed an official complaint with Rowlette concerning ROSP officials refusing me telephone contact with two attorneys who had offered me their professional assistance. I presented a request to Rowlette to allow me to call these two lawyers.
Months before, both of these lawyers had verified their credentials and their intent and efforts to advise and assist me in litigation against various ROSP staff, including my assigned counselor John Sykes and the chief warden Tracy Ray. One of these lawyers is Mr. Malik Shabazz. Upon being informed of my ongoing experiences of abuse at ROSP (abuse which is a response to my political activism and continuing exposure of abuses at the prison), Mr. Shabazz decided to support me. Mr. Shabazz happens to be the Chairman of the New Black Panther Party (NBPP), an organization with which I have no affiliation.
Rowlette's response was that if he had anything to do with it I'd never talk to a lawyer. When I pointed out that this was a basic constitutional right, he responded, "Your people have no rights." I am New Afrikan (Black) so his meaning was obvious. I filed a complaint. I also filed a complaint about being denied contact with my lawyers for months, despite their repeated attempts to arrange legal calls with me. Rowlette responded to my complaint with a memo stating that my request to have confidential legal calls to these lawyers was "DENIED." In this memo he rationalizes denying me legal calls by claiming that no attorney-client relationship exists between me and these lawyers.
The memo states that unless I prove that they are actively representing me in litigation pending in a court of record in Virginia, I will be denied legal calls. It specifically states that a letter from a lawyer stating the she is representing me "will not suffice." The memo also states, "Your request is further DENIED in regards to Mr. Malik Shabazz due to his involvement with the New Black Panther Party. To allow unrecorded phone calls between you and the President/Founder of the New Black Panther Party would present an unacceptable risk to the Security of this Facility."
For the benefit of any doubters, I've attached a copy of Rowlette's initialed memo.
Rowlette's memo breaks a barrel full of criminal laws. In Virginia it is a crime for any person to interfere with the relationship of confidence and trust that must exist between a lawyer and her/his client. It is also a crime for any one not licensed to practice law to present himself as qualified to give legal opinions. Both of these acts constitute the crime of "unauthorized practice of law."'
Rowlette has no legal training or authority to define the attorney-client relationship. He certainly cannot use any such unauthorized definition to block confidential communications between a lawyer and client. Indeed, the Virginia Supreme Court itself has defined what constitutes an attorney/client relationship. The court's definition is quite different from Rowlette's. In the U.S., it is the function of the courts to define and interpret the laws and the functions of executives (including prison officials), to enforce and apply those laws.
In its definitive document "Practice of Law in the commonwealth of Virginia" (PLCV), the Virginia Supreme Court defines the attorney-client relationship as follows:
"Generally, the relation of attorney and client exists and one is deemed to be practicing law whenever he furnishes to another advice or services under circumstances which imply his possession and use of legal knowledge or skill.
"Specifically, the relation of attorney and client exists, and one is deemed to be practicing law whenever (I.) One undertakes... to advise another... in any matter involving the application of legal principles to facts or purposes or desires. (2) One ... undertakes, with or without compensation, to prepare for another legal
instruments of any character...(3) One undertakes, with or without compensation, to represent the interest of another before any tribunal judicial, administrative, or
Rowlette's memo presumes to overrule the high court's definition of the attorney-client relationship. Using his unlawful definition, he has barred me from confidential contact with these lawyers. The bigger absurdity is the obvious Catch-22 in Rowlette's position. A lawyer must be able to consult with a client in order to gather the information necessary to file a lawsuit for him/her. If I am blocked from confidential communications with lawyers, then they will never be able to bring litigation on my behalf. This is the real intent behind Rowlette's game.
As for Mr. Shabazz's NBPP membership, Rowlette presents no evidence that this affiliation threatens prison security. As a federal lawyer, Mr. Shabazz is foremost an officer of the courts. If his private organizational affiliations conflicted with his professional status, Mr. Shabazz would not be permitted to maintain his legal license.
Furthermore Rowlette has directed ROSP mailroom clerks to intercept, open, read, and refuse to send out mail that is clearly identified as "legal mail" intended for lawyers. These mailroom officials, based upon Rowlettes' position, refuse to treat or process mail to and from lawyers as confidential legal mail in blatant violation of VDOC mail policy. This is a federal crime, obstructing U.S. mails,2 and violates my constitutional rights to free speech and to privacy in my legal mail.
History of Abuse at Red Onion State Prison
When ROSP first began operating in 1998, it developed almost instantly a nationwide reputation for racism and abuses of its predominantly nonwhite prisoner population by its near exclusively white staff.
In response to receiving a flood of letters from ROSP prisoners complaining of unjustified transfers to ROSP and of frequent and widespread racism, brutality and general abuse, Human Rights Watch (HRW) attorney Jamie Fellner conducted an independent investigation into conditions at the remote Virginia prison. Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) officials refused to cooperate with the investigation.
Ms. Fellner's findings were set out in an April 1999 HRW report entitled Red Onion State Prison:Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Virginia.3
This report touched on the various abusive conditions and treatments suffered by ROSP prisoners and found that many of those assigned to the prison did not meet the criteria for "supermax" confinement. Actually almost none did. Seven pages of the report focused on incidents and practices in the "Use of Force" at the prison. One incident described in that section stands out and is particularly relevant here:
"One inmate told HRW that immediately upon arrival at Red Onion in September 1998, he and other inmates were told to strip and permit a visual body search, including by spreading their buttocks. Female staff were present—indeed one was taking a video of the proceedings—and the inmate was reluctant to do as ordered in front of them. A captain shot him with the taser in the presence of the warden, associate warden and a major. After the inmate had been tasered, the major screamed in his ear, “Boy, you’re at Red Onion now” and then told the other officers to “get that nigger out of here.” The inmate filed a grievance because he felt—correctly—that he should not have had to submit to a visual body search strip in front of female staff.
"The inmate's grievance was denied. The warden acknowledged that a taser had been used because the inmate hesitated to strip and thus 'was failing to obey instructions.' The denial was upheld by the regional director without comment 'based on the information provided.' There was no effort to suggest that application of physical force was warranted by any possibility of danger or that nonphysical effort to persuade the inmate had been attempted and failed. The use of the taser appears more likely to have been a deliberate and malicious excessive use of force calculated to intimidate new arrivals to the facility.
"In denying the inmate's grievance, Warden George Deeds stated that post orders at Red Onion permit females to work at any post in this case, assignment to the video camera. It is widely recognized, however that cross-gender strip searches violate inmates' 'Individual dignity and right to privacy'. The warden's policy at Red Onion ignores basic correctional principles and international standards prohibiting cross-gender strip searches unless in an emergency." (pp. 21-22)
The prisoner who was the victim of this abusive strip search and unwarranted attack was XXXX XXXX. Indeed, most every prisoner assigned to ROSP during that time, including myself, were subjected to this cross-gender strip search process, during which it was often demanded that we repeatedly manipulate our genitals and spread our buttocks.
These searches were conducted under threat of being immediately tasered. A taser was trained on us throughout the strip search process. We were bodily subdued and searched by force by a mob of guards who were always present and dressed out in full riot armor. We were then escorted to our new cell assignment. Most were literally dragged stark naked through the prison while being observed nude by multitudes of guards, both male and female, as well as by other prisoners.
The entire process was calculated to humiliate and terrorize new arrivals and convey the message that at ROSP we would comply without hesitation with any staff demands, no matter how abusive or arbitrary. If we failed to promptly comply or questioned the demands, we would be met with immediate overwhelming force and further humiliation.
To convey this message these officials deliberately created a situation (for example the cross gender strip searches) calculated to provoke our resistance or hesitation and thereby justify the
premeditated intent to use overwhelming force.4
Before Abu Ghraib there was Red Onion.5
Richard Rowlette: Crime Time at ROSP
The Major who was personally present and supervised most of these intake strip searches, the very same major that screamed in XXXX's ear and told guards to "'get that nigger out of here," was Richard Rowlette.
XXXX subsequently filed and won a lawsuit concerning the incident. The court found that the officials had violated his constitutional rights, which is a federal crime.6 XXXX was then transferred away from ROSP and hasn't since returned. However, the multitudes of other prisoners who were subjected to the same treatments and worse, including myself, were granted no relief
In the wake of extensive bad media, the HRW report, and a U. S. Department of Justice investigation, Rowlette was assigned to another VDOC prison in Powhatan County, but not before he acted to settle a long standing vendetta he had against me.
On December 6, 1999, the day before he left ROSP, and in a departing last show of power, Rowlette attempted to force me to talk to him at my cell door. I ignored him. I generally refuse to engage him in conversation. This enrages him, as he believes he can intimidate prisoners to do whatever he demands under threat of having them attacked by guards.
Because I wouldn't talk to him, Rowlette had two extraction teams of some 10 guards assembled at my cell in full riot armor, with two 50,000 volt electric shields and a 36 ounce canister of gas. Under his direct supervision and direction I was gassed for an entire hour while the entire canister was emptied into the cell. This level of gas was far in excess of the 6 grams that federal courts have found to be an "estimated lethal dose" when sprayed into a small closed-in cell.7 He then had me sprayed with more gas from a smaller canister that guards generally carry on their sides. This was a clear attempt to torture and murder me by asphyxiation.
I was then met with violent attack by the two teams of armored guards. After being restrained and strapped down to the bunk in 5-point restraints8 for 48 hours (in the still contaminated cell), I was electrocuted repeatedly. For the entire two days in restraints I was denied water, meals, medication, and restroom breaks. This is all documented and on record in the U.S. District Court in Roanoke.9
Rowlette had remarked that he had hoped I'd refuse to talk to him and that the attack he'd orchestrated was his "going away present" to me. His spell away from ROSP was merely a "cooling off period" and a token move by VDOC officials to create a public appearance of responding to abusive conditions at ROSP. Indeed, there was little effect on abuse levels after he left.
Promoting Official Criminals as the Norm
Rewarding criminally inclined prison officials in Virginia is the norm. For example, one guard, David Allen Taylor (a prior captain at ROSP), has been found guilty in several prisoner lawsuits of involvement in beatings and abuses of Black prisoners. in one such case, a prisoner YYYY YYYY, won a monetary judgment against Taylor. The state not only paid the judgment for Taylor (your tax dollars at work), but he was promoted in the meantime from lieutenant to captain. Just this year, he was promoted again, to major, at one of the VDOC's new prisons.
Another guard, William Wright, is widely known for assaulting Black prisoners at ROSP while they are fully restrained. His attacks have resulted in broken bones, dislocations, lacerations, and other serious injuries. Wright was recently promoted from corporal to sergeant.
Indeed an unmistakable pattern and long-standing trend in the VDOC is to promote guards who are being sued by prisoners for abuses while they have litigation pending against them. This is a ploy to bolster the professional image of abusive guards in order to create bias in their favor. Furthermore, the state defends abusive guards against prisoner litigation no matter how obvious their guilt and no matter what their offense. And as occurred with David Taylor, the state pays any monetary judgments awarded, no wonder there is no fear of consequences for abuses.
Most of the abuses at ROSP are captured on videotape, but those records are routinely erased, which is a crime in Virginia. 10 So where do the illegalities end and "justice" come into play? Rowlette won't be prosecuted for his crimes. This contributes to the cavalier attitude of officials towards the very laws they are sworn to uphold. Indeed what is a man like Rowlette doing running a prison? Ain't prisons in Amerika supposed to exist to punish and deter criminals? Where are all the tough on crime politicians when you need them?
Power to the People!
1 In Part 6 Section II of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia, "Introduction," the Supreme Court states: "any person practicing law without being duly authorized or licensed is guilty of a misdemeanor." The statue under which this crime is enforced is Code of Virginia section 54.1-3904. The Supreme Court has promulgated a set of Unauthorized Practice Rules (UPR) which outline some specific acts which constitute a criminal unauthorized practice of law. Rowlette's actions violate the following UPR's:
"UPR 3-101. Attorney Client Relationship": (A) An agency shall not disrupt the relationship of confidence and trust which must exist between a lawyer and his client.
"UPR 9-101. Holding Out as an Expert": (A) A non-lawyer shall not hold himself out as authorized to furnish another advice or service under circumstances which imply his possession of legal knowledge."
Prisoners also have a constitutional and civil privacy right to confidential telephone calls to their attorneys. See Tucker v. Randall. 948 F 2d. 388, 391 (7th Cir. 1991).
2 It is a federal crime to obstruct or delay delivery or processing of U.S. Mails. See Title 18 United States Code sections 1702-1708. Prisoners have a constitutional right to privacy in mail to and from "any identifiable attorney either representing or being asked to represent a prisoner in relation to any criminal or civil problem." See Taylor v. Sterrett, 532 F 2d 462, 474 (5th Cir. 1976).
3 The entire report can be read and downloaded at the Human Rights Watch website at: http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/redonion/
4 The U.S. Constitution's 8th Amendment protects prisoners from "cruel and unusual punishment." The federal courts have ruled that officials violate the 8th Amendment when they deliberately "provoke an incident so as to allow" them to attack a prisoner "under guise of maintaining order or defending" themselves. Miller v. Leathers, 913 F. 2d 1085, 1088 (4th Cir. 1990).
5 As XXXX's incident exemplifies, the abuses at ROSP cannot be dismissed as the actions of a few unsupervised low-level staff, but rather was approved by the VDOC's highest administrators. The torture, sexual degradation and abuses at Abu Ghraib were dismissed as the acts of a handful of "renegade" soldiers acting without authority. These soldiers, when targeted for prosecutions, contended that they were doing as instructed by high level military officials, which likely they were, just like at ROSP.
6 Under 18 United States Code, sections 241 and 242, it is a crime for prison officials to violate prisoners' civil and constitutional rights.
7 Based upon tests of pharmacological experts, the federal courts have found that caustic gas is lethal in doses of just 6 grams "in the confines of a small cell." See Williams v. Benjamin 77 F 3d 756, 764 (4th Cir. 1996).
8 5-point restraints is a process where a prisoner is handcuffed and leg shackled to the frame of a steel bunk inside a cell spread eagle on his/her back. A thick strap is then secured across his/her chest to prevent the body from being able to raise up or move.
9 See case file of Kevin Johnson v. Page True, et al.
10 Under Code of Virginia section 18.2-472 it is a crime for any "public officer" to make any false entry into or destroy any government record. Under this statute any such offense committed by an officer "shall" result in the permanent forfeiture of his office and he shall forever be barred from holding any public office in Virginia ever again.