Wise County, Va.—On May 19 an inmate from Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) phoned a member of Supporting Prisoners and Acting for Radical Change (SPARC), informing her that on May 22 at least 11 inmates were going on hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions of Red Onion.
The group of participating prisoners spanning two cell blocks had composed a list of ten demands: 1. Fully cooked and nutritious food, 2. Unrestricted access to grievance forms, 3. Better communication with higher-ranking guards to make grievances, 4. End of indefinite segregation, 5. Adequate standard of living including having more than just a sponge with which to swab their toilets, 6. Third-party neutral observers to document the conditions of ROSP, 7. To be informed of any changes in policy as soon as they are made, 8. Adequate medical care, 9. Monthly haircuts, and 10. No reprisals for the hunger strike.
Solidarity with Virginia Hunger Strikers, an ad-hoc organization separate from SPARC, was quickly formed to assist the hunger strikers. Groups mobilized in D.C., Richmond, Roanoke, and southwest Virginia to spread the word and offer support. Two lawyers volunteered to be legal representatives for the leaders of the hunger strike. Protests and demonstrations were organized at the Department of Corrections headquarters in Richmond and at their branch in Roanoke. A story appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and on the local television news, and announcements were made on WMMT radio.
The Virginia Department of Corrections initially recognized that a hunger strike was in progress (once the strikers had refused nine meal trays in a row), but they swiftly and ruthlessly cracked down on it by, among other things, isolating the participating prisoners. The organizer of the strike was at first segregated in an empty cell block and not allowed any visitors. DJs from WMMT who tried to visit participating prisoners were turned away.
The prison guards forced prisoners to accept their food trays through a variety of ruses. In one case, a prisoner who was expecting a legal visit had to accept a tray because otherwise he would have been sent to the medical unit, where they could prevent him from getting a legal visit at all. In another case, they confiscated the inmate’s clothes and all possessions until he accepted a tray.
Ultimately, the majority of the hunger strikers were shipped off to Wallens Ridge State Prison, an institution reputed to have even harsher conditions and more punitive guards. The inmate who initially organized the hunger strike was shipped out-of-state to a prison in Colorado, and the Department of Corrections declared that the hunger strike was over. Solidarity with Virginia Hunger Strikers has been unable to verify this, because the DOC has blocked all attempts to visit or communicate with the prisoners involved.
In the end, because of the press coverage, support for the hunger strikers was manifested statewide and further. And the initiator of the hunger strike wrote from Colorado, where he was isolated without any of his possessions, “… one thing I can say, for all the repression they [are] putting me through, [they are] letting me know for all the times they ignored us, they heard our voice this time.”
NEWS AND LETTERS SOLIDARITY WITH RED ONION PRISONERS
Here is the solidarity statement News and Letters Committees sent to the hunger-striking prisoners in Virginia:
The courageous prisoners at Red Onion State Prison, VA, are demanding recognition that is due all human beings. Your demands: for edible food, for real grievance procedures, for oversight of guards’ performance, etc., are specific to your institution and conditions. Yet they reverberate with every prisoner and every person who cares about human dignity. Your struggle is a part of many other prisoners’ struggles, too. Georgia prisons went on strike on Dec. 9, 2010. Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, went on hunger strike in January 2011. Pelican Bay SHU prisoners organized a hunger strike in July 2011 and again in September- October 2011, that crossed not only the race/gang divisions the prison forces on prisoners, it inspired solidarity actions in many other California prisons and engendered unprecedented support from outside, uniting families of prisoners with activists in various actions of support.
We in News and Letters Committees express the firmest solidarity with the strivings of Red Onion prisoners. You are not forgotten! Your struggle is our struggle, is everyone’s struggle for a human world.
—News and Letters Committees