Red Onion State Prison

Coordinates: 37°6′40″N 82°33′00″W / 37.11111°N 82.55000°W / 37.11111; -82.55000
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Red Onion State Prison
Red Onion State Prison is located in Virginia
Red Onion State Prison
Location in Virginia
LocationWise County, Virginia
Coordinates37°6′40″N 82°33′00″W / 37.11111°N 82.55000°W / 37.11111; -82.55000
Security classSupermax
Population713[2] (as of July 2011)
OpenedAugust 1998[3]
Managed byVirginia Department of Corrections
DirectorHarold Clarke
WardenRick White
Street address10800 H. Jack Rose Highway
P.O. Box 970
CountyWise County
ZIP Code24279
CountryUnited States

Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) is a supermax state prison located in unincorporated Wise County, Virginia,[4] near Pound. Operated by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC), it houses about 800 inmates.[3] The prison opened in August 1998.

It was the primary model for Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, its second supermax facility, that opened in 1999.[5][6]


Plans were announced in 1992 to build a prison on Red Onion Mountain, with cost of construction estimated at $52 million. 375 acres of land were donated by the Pittston Coal Company, which reserved some rights to mineral extraction. Many residents of Wise County supported constructing the prison because of jobs it would provide and because it would remain relatively isolated. One official said: "It's off the beaten path. You won't even know it's there."[7] The prison was designed by Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, a subdivision of AECOM since 1984.[6]

The final cost of construction was over $70 million, with ground broken in 1995.[5] As of 1999, the prison employed almost 800 people. Many of the corrections officers arrived at Red Onion after being laid off from jobs in nearby coalfields.[8]

Red Onion is one of six new prisons built in Virginia between 1995 and 2000. It thus contributed an increase in capacity to the Virginia Corrections system that allowed the state to contractually accept inmates from outside the state.[9] In 1999, the District of Columbia Department of Corrections was paying the Virginia Department of Corrections to house 69 prisoners at the Red Onion State Prison.[5] These contracts were substantially reduced in 2004, when VADOC announced that it needed more supermax space for Virginians.[10] In 2011, VADOC reported only 15 out-of-state inmates at Red Onion: two from Pennsylvania and thirteen from the U.S. Virgin Islands.[2]


Red Onion is a "supermax" prison, intended to incarcerate "the worst of the worst." Critics of the prison have alleged that many inmates are sent to Red Onion not because they have committed severe crimes but because they broke rules at other facilities.[11] Some 55% of Red Onion's prisoners have sentences longer than 15 years, and 12% have life sentences.[12]

Red Onion is the home of surviving "Beltway sniper" Lee Boyd Malvo.[13] It also used to hold convicted murderer and activist Joseph Giarratano, who for some time was allowed to teach a course on nonviolence.[14]


More than two-thirds of prisoners at Red Onion are held in solitary confinement, or "segregation". They are confined to their cells 23 hours per day in 8’ x 10’ cells with 6” x 24” windows for light. Length of confinement ranges from two weeks to fourteen years.[15][16] Food and medicine are served through trays in the cell door.[17]

Opportunities for education and work are more limited than in most prisons due to the higher security level; however, Red Onion offers janitorial work, a GED program, and a literacy program.[16] The prison uses a video education system which allows the playing of prerecorded video files over 5" CCTV screens.[16][17][18]

The facility was designed to minimize contact between corrections officers and prisoners as well as among prisoners.

Human rights criticisms[edit]

A 1999 report by Human Rights Watch raised concerns over conditions in Red Onion. The report states that "Virginia Department of Corrections has failed to embrace basic tenets of sound correctional practice and laws protecting inmates from abusive, degrading or cruel treatment"[19] and claims that "racism, excessive violence and inhumane conditions reign inside."[5] In 2001, Amnesty International released another report citing human rights violations at Red Onion.[20]

Critics note that Red Onion's solitary confinement rate is the highest in the Virginia prison system.[11] A reported 173 of the prisoners in solitary confinement have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, and some contend that isolation exacerbates their conditions and limits their ability to get treatment.[15][19]

"Control Unit Torture", art created by Red Onion inmate Kevin "Rashid" Johnson[21]

The reports also cite the use of firearms with live ammunition by guards (an unusual practice in American prisons), which has led to inmate injuries. They also object to the use of electroshock weapons by guards. Critics also point to "five point restraints" as an instance of cruel punishment. These are devices that guards use to physically restrain inmates. They are officially used to limit movement of prisoners who threaten themselves or others, but critics such as Amnesty International have argued that guards use them for punishment and torture.[11][20]

Mac Gaskins, a prisoner at Red Onion for fourteen years, reported: "having your fingers broken inside of these places, being bitten by dogs, being strapped to beds for days, as we've talked about many times, being forced to defecate on yourself – I mean all of this has led to these men demanding to be treated as human beings. It's like if you are put inside prison, you forfeit that right to be treated as a human being." Gaskins also reported that prisoners were denied access to soap, toothpaste, and books.[22] Kevin "Rashid" Johnson, prison artist and organizer, has for years reported multiple instances of brutality and mistreatment from officers.[23][22]

Advocates for Red Onion prisoners also note that the majority of those incarcerated are African Americans from Richmond or Northern Virginia, whereas most of the corrections officers are whites from Appalachia. It is suggested that this racial disparity leads to active racism which exacerbates the human rights abuses.[11]

Human Rights Watch complained that much was still unknown about the prison, as a result of the difficulty of seeing inside or communicating with prisoners.[19] Mother Jones reported that inmates were required to wear electroshock "stun belts" while meeting with outside investigators.[24]

Inmate Kawaski Bass died after being attacked by another prisoner in his cell on September 9, 2011.[25] His family accuses the warden and guards on duty of ignoring screams for help, and has filed a lawsuit against them, Red Onion State Prison, and the state of Virginia.[26]

Response to criticisms[edit]

Prison officials confirm that isolation is normal at Red Onion, but argue that they do not engage in the cruel practice known as "solitary confinement". They also disagree with complaints about access and say that prisoners can receive visits from attorneys, and from family and friends for four hours a month.[12]

Former Governor Bob McDonnell stated: "People behind bars have civil rights. At the same time, we have a duty to promote public safety. If people show, even in prison, that they can't get along with other prisoners, then they are treated accordingly." Former VADOC director Ronald J. Angelone, during whose term (1994–2002) Red Onion was designed and opened, defended the supermax system as necessary to avoid violence, saying: "There is no Department of Corrections magic wand that makes them decent human beings while in prison. They have to be housed appropriately so that the employees and the other inmates aren't subjected to violent behavior."[27]

Former Virginia state senator Kenneth W. Stolle, who served as chairman of the Virginia State Crime Commission, has argued that rehabilitation at Red Onion is less important because so many prisoners serve life sentences, saying: "If they're getting out, obviously we have a responsibility to make sure they at least have an opportunity to be functioning members of society. Most people envisioned that Red Onion and Wallens Ridge were going to be dedicated to people with life sentences."[27] The state announced that it would restrict the use of restraints as punishment in response to the report from Human Rights Watch.[28]

Department of Justice investigation[edit]

Responding to the report from Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that in October 2000 that it would open an investigation.[29] The Virginia Department of Corrections announced plans in March 2012 to review solitary confinement policies at Red Onion. A Washington Post report suggested that this announcement would continue to postpone action by the Department of Justice.[12]

Hunger strike[edit]

On May 22, 2012, inmates in Red Onion began a hunger strike to bring "abusive prison conditions to light".[30] The prisoners said: "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."[22] Inmates issued 10 demands including "fully cooked food"; "unrestricted access to complaint and grievance forms"; "an adequate standard of living"; and "adequate medical care".[31][32]

Red Onion officials stated that the hunger strike ended within a week.[33] Supporters of the strikers challenged these reports and contended that the prison has taken pains to isolate and silence strike leaders in order to discourage communication with the outside world.[11]

Notable inmates[edit]


Inmate Name Register Number Status Details
Lee Boyd Malvo 1180834 Serving a sentence of life without parole.[34] One of the two perpetrators of the 2002 D.C. Snipers in which, along with killings both men committed in Maryland, 17 people were murdered and a further 10 were injured.[35][36]
Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr. 1667409 Serving multiple life sentences for numerous crimes. Originally arrested as a suspect in the 2014 Murder of Hannah Graham.[37][38][39][40] His arrest then led to him also being a suspect in the 2009 Murder of Morgan Dana Harrington, and sexual assault allegations.[41][42][43][44] He was then sentenced for a sexual assault in 2005, and for the murders of both Hannah and Morgan.[45][46][47]
Joaquin Rams 1487190 Serving a life sentence. Murdered his own 15-month-old son.[48][49]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Frank Green, "Virginia's prison population forecast to rise", Richmond Times Dispatch, 7 January 2008.
  2. ^ a b "Monthly Population Summary: July 2011", Virginia Department of Corrections, accessed 7 November 2012.
  3. ^ a b Red Onion State Prison, Commonwealth of Virginia, accessed 7 November 2012.
  4. ^ "2020 CENSUS - CENSUS BLOCK MAP: Wise County, VA" (PDF). U.S. Census Bureau. p. 5 (PDF p. 6/29). Retrieved 2022-08-14. Red Onion State Prison
  5. ^ a b c d "At Va.'s Toughest Prison, Tight Controls". Washington Post. April 18, 1999. p. C1. Retrieved January 16, 2010.
  6. ^ a b Gordon Wright, "Maximum security", Building Design and Construction 42(2), February 1999; accessed via ProQuest.
  7. ^ Business Journal of Upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia 5(11), December 1992.
  8. ^ "Miners' New Prospect Is Prison Guard Jobs", The Washington Post, 16 March 1998. Accessed via ProQuest. "The state employment office has received more than 3,000 applications for the 403 guard jobs, paying $20,000 a year, at Red Onion State Prison, which will open in July. Many of the applications come from laid-off miners."
  9. ^ Judith A. Greene, "Entrepreneurial Corrections: Incarceration As A Business Opportunity", in Invisible Punishment, ed. Marc Maurer and Meda Chesney-Lind; New York, The New Press, 2002.
  10. ^ Maria Glod, "Va. to Send Out-of-State Inmates Packing; State Says It Needs Space Used by 1,000 Prisoners from Conn., D.C., Elsewhere", The Washington Post, 28 February 2004.
  11. ^ a b c d e Rania Khalek, "Hunger Strikers at Virginia Supermax Face Retaliation for Protest Against Torturous Conditions", Truthout, 6 June 2012.
  12. ^ a b c Anita Kumar, "Virginia plans changes in prisoner isolation process", The Washington Post, 30 March 2012.
  13. ^ Josh White, "Lee Boyd Malvo, 10 years after D.C. area sniper shootings: 'I was a monster'", The Washington Post, 29 September 2012.
  14. ^ Colman McCarthy, "Teaching peace from prison", National Catholic Reporter, 29 July 2005.
  15. ^ a b Anita Kumar, "Va. prisons’ use of solitary confinement is scrutinized", The Washington Post, 7 January 2012.
  16. ^ a b c Peter Finn, "Two New Prisons Rise for Virginia's Toughest Convicts; Abolition of Parole Results In `Super-Maximum' Facilities", The Washington Post, 23 June 1997; accessed via ProQuest.
  17. ^ a b "Red Onion State Prison: Best Practices in SuperMax/Extended Control/Special Management Units", Virginia Department of Corrections, accessed 8 November 2012. (Archive)
  18. ^ James Careless, "Red Onion State Prison improves inmate video education system", Government Video 18(6), May 2007; accessed via ProQuest
  19. ^ a b c Jamie Fellner, "Red Onion State Prison: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Virginia", Human Rights Watch, April 1999.
  20. ^ a b "United States of America: Abuses continue unabated? Cruel and inhumane treatment at Virginia supermaximum security prisons", Amnesty International, 1 May 2001.
  21. ^ Kevin "Rashid" Johnson", "Abuse Reports Culminate In Hair-Raising Assault By Red Onion State Prison Guards", 10 January 2012.
  22. ^ a b c Mary Ratcliff, "Prisoners at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison on hunger strike", San Francisco Bay View, 27 May 2012.
  23. ^ Kevin "Rashid" Johnson, "From bad to worse", San Francisco Bay View, 29 January 2012.
  24. ^ "Shocking Discipline", Mother Jones, March/April 2000.
  25. ^ Va. Inmate Dies After Attack (Report). The Daily Progress.
  26. ^ Michael Owens, "Family suing state, Red Onion Prison for death of inmate", Bristol Herald-Courier (, 15 July 2012.
  27. ^ a b Craig Timberg, "Virginia Rethinking Hard-Core Prisons; Effect on Inmates Could Backfire", The Washington Post, 27 April 1999, accessed via ProQuest.
  28. ^ Bill Miller, "Va. Alters Prison Policy to Cut Use of Restraints", The Washington Post, 9 February 2001; accessed via ProQuest.
  29. ^ Maria Glod, "U.S. Investigates Virginia Prison; Red Onion Inmates' Allegations Involve Excessive Force", The Washington Post, 3 October 2000; accessed via ProQuest.
  30. ^ Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers (Report).
  31. ^ Ten Demands of ROSP Hunger Strikers (Report).
  32. ^ Anita Kumar (May 22, 2012). "Virginia inmates embark on hunger strike to protest prison conditions". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 22, 2012.
  33. ^ Anita Kumar, "Hunger strike at Red Onion prison has ended, state officials say", The Washington Post 29 May 2012.
  34. ^ "VADOC — Offender Locator". Retrieved 2023-06-13.
  35. ^ "Judge affirms life in prison for Malvo". NBC News. 2004-03-09. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  36. ^ "Maryland Sentences Malvo To Life - CBS News". 2006-11-08. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  37. ^ "Jesse Matthew, Suspect in Hannah Graham Case, Has History of Bad Acts". NBC News. 2014-10-22. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  38. ^ Shapiro, T. Rees; Zapotosky, Matt; Duggan, Paul (2023-04-16). "Suspect in Hannah Graham disappearance described as popular athlete, 'gentle giant'". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  39. ^ "Jesse Matthew Jr. Charged with First-Degree Murder of University of Virginia Student". Peoplemag. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  40. ^ Eversley, Melanie. "Report: Matthew charged in Hannah Graham's murder". USA TODAY. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  41. ^ "Forensic Evidence Links Hannah Graham Suspect to Murdered Virginia Tech Student". Peoplemag. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  42. ^ "Morgan Harrington Killing: Jesse Matthew Charged in Death of Student". NBC News. 2015-09-18. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  43. ^ "Jesse Matthew accused of 2003 campus sexual assault". USA TODAY. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  44. ^ Jouvenal, Justin (2023-04-16). "March trial date set for Jesse Matthew in Fairfax City sexual assault case". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  45. ^ "Jesse Matthew Jr: 3 life prison terms for 2005 sex assault". AP News. 2015-10-02. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  46. ^ "Accused UVA Killer Jesse Matthew Pleads Guilty In Two Murders". NBC News. 2016-03-02. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  47. ^ "Jesse Matthew gets 4 life sentences for murders". USA TODAY. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  48. ^ Jackman, Tom; Martin, Victoria St (2023-05-24). "Virginia man guilty of capital murder in death of 15-month-old son". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  49. ^ "Man gets life without parole for killing son for insurance". 2017-08-01. Retrieved 2024-01-22.
  50. ^ "Robert Charles Gleason Jr. #1321". Retrieved 2024-01-22.