Inmate's death raises questions on stun guns, investigation

Correction Budget Boosted

By Edward Fitzpatrick --The Hartford Courant

June 21, 2000

The state will funnel $2.5 million into mental health programs and halfway houses, hoping to free up prison beds as the inmate population rapidly grows. In revising the state budget Monday, the General Assembly earmarked $1.5 million for evaluating people charged with misdemeanors to see if they need mental health or drug-treatment programs. The legislature also pumped $1 million into halfway homes for inmates leaving prison and $100,000 for additional probation officers. ``These are tactics that, when taken together, will probably have a big, measurable impact on the need for prison beds over the course of a year,'' said Michael P. Lawlor, an East Haven Democrat and judiciary committee co-chairman. ``Over the next six to nine months, we'll see if this diverts enough inmates to realistically consider bringing the 500 inmates back from Virginia.'' The state's inmate population has nearly doubled over the past decade, going from 8,777 to 17,392, and Connecticut is now housing 469 inmates at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Va. Monday's action may have an effect in the long run, but it won't free up prison beds in the short term, said Scott Semple, the Department of Correction's legislative liaison. ``One of the big issues we have as an agency is the need for high-security bed spaces, and this does not really address that problem,'' Semple said. But the funding could help in the future if it reduces the prison population and the rate of recidivism, he said. For now, though, the department is looking to expand existing prisons with $25 million remaining in the state budget. Republican Gov. John G. Rowland included $50 million for prison expansion in his budget proposal, but Democratic lawmakers cut that in half when they killed a proposal that would have put 800 prison beds in the New Haven Armory.

Within the next week, the Department of Correction plans to issue requests for proposals, asking places that already have prisons if they're interested in adding more cells, Semple said. The state will be able to fast-track the new construction and is hoping to create 800 new prison beds. ``It will probably get us halfway to addressing the current need,'' Semple said. ``But at least it gets the ball rolling, and we can begin the process.''


Connecticut Inmates exported to: Virginia's Wallens Ridge Prison

Complaints Include Racism, Stun Guns

By Edward Fitzpatrick --The Hartford Courant

June 19, 2000 Big Stone Gap, Va. -

Deep in the heart of Appalachia, a rocky ridge rises above an old coal-mining town. The mountain ends abruptly at 2,900 feet, sheared off to accommodate a supermaximum-security prison ringed by razor wire. This is Wallens Ridge State Prison, home to the worst of Virginia's criminals - and to nearly 500 Connecticut inmates sent here to ease crowding.

The lone road to Wallens Ridge winds skyward, climbing 2 miles past fields of wildflower, slowly revealing the majesty of the mountains of southwest Virginia. At the apex, though, the idyllic scene shifts. A bald-headed guard stands with a shotgun resting on one shoulder. From behind dark sunglasses, he keeps an eye on inmates cutting the lawn. A loudspeaker echoes from within the prison's concrete walls. Pickup trucks dot the parking lot; one has a sticker that reads: ``Red Neck.''

To enter the prison, visitors pass through a metal detector and heavy steel doors that slam shut immediately. The clink of ankle chains warns of a prisoner's approach.

The Connecticut inmates sent to this mountaintop fortress say it is a world apart, a world in which shotguns and stun guns are used to keep order, a world of racial taunts and fear. ``It's hell,'' said Norwich's Victor Negron Jr., shackled hand and foot inside a windowless cinderblock room. ``It ain't nothing like Connecticut. When you come down here, it's a whole different story.''

As if to prove his point, a fight broke out in another part of the prison as Negron spoke. Guards used hard-rubber pellets to quell the disturbance, but in the process injured three Connecticut inmates who had nothing to do with the melee. The routine use of shotguns containing rubber pellets is just one of the issues that have made Wallens Ridge a lightning rod for criticism.

Race is emerging as a persistent issue; Wallens Ridge mixes white guards from the rural South with black and Hispanic inmates from Connecticut cities. And with 700 miles separating inmates from their families and friends, visits are rare.

But as the complaints mount and protesters march in Connecticut, Republican Gov. John G. Rowland remains steadfast. In fact, Rowland, whose tough talk on crime helped get him elected, sought - but failed to win - the legislature's permission to send 500 more inmates out of state. When the General Assembly convenes for a special session today, Democrats hope to pass legislation aimed at shifting nonviolent prisoners into drug treatment and mental health programs. And the Republican administration hopes to end up with $25 million for prison expansion.

But there's nothing on the table that addresses the use of Wallens Ridge. One of the most outspoken critics of the Virginia transfers, Democratic Rep. Michael P. Lawlor of East Haven, said he sees only two scenarios that would bring inmates back from Wallens Ridge: a nightmarish incident or scandal, or the end of crowding in Connecticut prisons.

Race And Place

Tavares Cosby, a black inmate from Bridgeport, said that soon after he arrived at Wallens Ridge, he heard a white guard and a black inmate calling each other ``nigger'' and ``cracker.'' Connecticut inmates have repeatedly complained about racial taunts by Wallens Ridge guards. Connecticut Correction Commissioner John J. Armstrong said none of the allegations have been proved thus far. Of the 200 or so correction officers at the prison, six are black and none are Hispanic, according to guards. That racial makeup, they said, simply reflects that region of the country. But it does not reflect the racial makeup of the Connecticut inmates at Wallens Ridge, who are 48.5 percent black, 26.5 percent Hispanic and 25 percent white - a situation the Connecticut NAACP president called a ``potential powder keg.''

Correction officers at Wallens Ridge downplayed racial tensions. They said they wouldn't do anything to jeopardize jobs that often represent a marked improvement over their prior employment. One guard said his $14 hourly salary is more than double what he made in a factory.

Wallens Ridge opened in April 1999, one year after a twin facility called Red Onion became the state's first supermaximum-security prison. The prisons were needed, Virginia officials say, to handle prisoners serving longer sentences after the state abolished parole in 1994. But critics say Virginia overbuilt, spending millions on prison beds now occupied by inmates imported from as far away as New Mexico.

About half of the nearly 1,000 inmates at Wallens Ridge are from out of state. For Big Stone Gap, a town of 4,728 devastated by massive layoffs at the Westmoreland Coal Co., Wallens Ridge meant badly needed new jobs. To build the prison, local officials sold $78 million in bonds, which are being paid back with lease payments from the state. In the process, critics say, officials have created the kind of dangerous dynamic often seen in rural prisons, where job-starved people with little experience are given guns, badges and authority over inner-city inmates from different races and cultures. The result, they warn, can be abuse of power. ``Central Appalachia is poor and white - rural people who for the most part don't come in contact with blacks and Hispanics,'' said Sister Beth Davies, a community activist in Appalachia and former principal of a Catholic high school in Stamford, Conn. ``The inmates coming in are people of color from urban areas. It's a setup for failure. It exploits both populations.''

Big Stone Gap officials say the local community is being unfairly portrayed. ``We are not, as one of your cohorts in the Connecticut media portrayed us, some mountain men with bibbed overalls and no teeth, holding a Confederate flag in one hand,'' said Charles Miller, director of the Big Stone Gap Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which launched the prison project. ``He thought we were from `Deliverance.' '' While a visitor might see Confederate memorabilia, ``you could also see someone with a UConn cap on,'' said Town Manager George R. Polly. For many, he said, ``the primary concern is college sports, not the war between the states.''

Worst Of Worst?

While politicians and pundits ponder the bigger questions of racism and policy, Victor Negron Jr. just wonders why he's in Big Stone Gap. The 25-year-old convicted murderer acknowledges he was disciplined for fighting and disobeying orders in Connecticut prisons, but he emphasizes he was also studying for his GED and taking anger-management classes. ``I was trying to rehabilitate myself,'' Negron said. ``I'm not the worst of the worst.'' Sympathy for killers can be hard to come by. And of the 480 Connecticut inmates at Wallens Ridge, 163 are serving sentences for murder or manslaughter. But not everyone is there for a violent crime. Of those 480 inmates, 42 are serving sentences for selling or possessing drugs.

It was the apparent suicide of a young drug offender that ratcheted up criticism of Wallens Ridge. David Tracy, a 20-year-old Bridgeport resident sentenced to 30 months in prison on a cocaine charge, died in April, seven months before his release date. Tracy's case focused attention on the criteria Connecticut uses to send inmates to Virginia.

Wallens Ridge is meant for high-security inmates, those placed in administrative segregation, those considered high-risk gang members, and those with chronic disciplinary problems.

Shotguns And Stun Guns

Billy Santos, a convicted murderer from Bridgeport, seems cool and confident, making statements like: ``I fear no man.'' But as he talked about life at Wallens Ridge, it became clear that he lives in fear of ricocheting pellets and electronic stun guns. ``I'm aging quickly,'' the 22-year- old said at one point. ``It's constantly stressful. Every inmate in this institution is a walking time bomb.''

During the first year of operation, guards fired 80 shots - 68 warning shots and 12 rounds of rubber pellets. Since the prison opened, guards have used electronic stun devices 112 times. Virginia officials are unapologetic. Ron Angelone, director of Virginia's Department of Correction, declined to be interviewed but provided an article he wrote in August 1999, titled ``Why `Supermax' Prisons Work.'' Non-lethal weapons quicken response time and can keep inmates from injuring or even killing other inmates and staff, Angelone said. ``I'm tired of people going around telling the world that we're just mean folks shooting innocent folks,'' he wrote. ``We are not. We are saving lives.'' Connecticut does not routinely use shotguns to control inmates, but it also has a higher incidence of attacks on guards and staff injuries, Correction Commissioner Armstrong said.

Virginia does not allow the media to tour any of its prisons, although reporters can talk to inmates in an interview room. ``We are just not going to let the general public in here,'' said Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections. ``We are here to protect the general public.'' But critics say the real motive is to protect Virginia prisons from public scrutiny. ``Oversight and accountability might be inconvenient for correction officials,'' Lawlor said, ``but they have proved to be vital to safe and secure prisons.''

Many Miles, Few Programs

For Billy Santos, the worst part about Wallens Ridge is that he can't see his family. They used to visit once or twice a week in Connecticut, but they can't afford the trek to Big Stone Gap, he said. For months, officials have promised to install closed-circuit televisions at a few sites in Connecticut so families can see and talk to inmates in Virginia. Armstrong said technical and bureaucratic problems have slowed the process, but he expects the system to be ready soon.

From the beginning, Connecticut inmates also have complained about a shortage of educational, rehabilitative and religious programs. ``We are not benefiting from being up here,'' Cosby said. ``We want to do something, and all we can do is play cards and chess or go out and play basketball.''

Armstrong said more programs will be offered at Wallens Ridge by mid-summer, and Traylor said programs are already available, though they're offered through closed-circuit television in the cells for security reasons. ``It's not just a lock- them-up, throw-away-the-key situation,'' he said. Angelone was less diplomatic during the dedication ceremony for Red Onion. ``What are they going to be rehabilitated for?'' Angelone said, according to The Roanoke Times. ``Let's face it; they're here to die in prison.'' But many of the Connecticut inmates at Wallens Ridge will be free one day, and critics question what price society will pay if those prisoners are not rehabilitated.

``If you put someone in a cage, with no outlets, no ways of growing, what are you going to get?'' asked Dennis Higgins, an inmate from Milford now at Wallens Ridge. ``An individual in worse shape than when he came in.'' Higgins, a 37-year-old with a record of assault and robbery, said he expects to go free in 18 months. And, he said, ``I might be your next- door neighbor.''