Interview: New Mexico Attorney Charges Virginia Supermax Prison is "Concentration Camp"

by Marianna Wertz

Printed in the American Almanac, May 29, 2000

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Albuquerque attorney Paul Livingston is currently filing Federal civil rights suits on behalf of many of the 108 New Mexico prison inmates who have been shipped to Virginia's Wallens Ridge ``supermax'' (super-maximum security) prison--designed to hold the ``worst-of-the-worst'' criminal offenders. The suits charge that the inmates--all of whom are low- and medium-security prisoners--have had their fundamental Constitutional rights violated, in a setting which Livingston likens to a ``concentration camp'' and ``slavery.''

The importance of this legal action is twofold. First, if it succeeds, it will help to shut down this supermax facility, and others like it across the country, which indeed implement fascist-like treatment of prisoners as routine practice in the United States.

Secondly, a successful suit would help to expose the horrors of Virginia's criminal justice system, which is becoming a model for those who would eliminate rehabilitation altogether from prisons and expand even further the ``prison-industrial complex,'' which today is a multibillion-dollar business preying on more than 2 million incarcerated men, women, and children.

Virginia's rate of incarceration, at 600 per 100,000, ranks far above nations whom the United States denounces for ``human rights violations''--Cuba (300), Iran (155), China (115), Syria (95), and Indonesia (20). Virginia is second only to George W. Bush's Texas in the number of executions it carries out, and first in its rate of executions per 100,000 population. Virginia today has 4,000 extra prison beds, the result of an insane construction program from 1994-98, under Gov. George Allen. Virginia now has an aggressive marketing program to lease these beds out to other states, including New Mexico, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut, to make up the loss of revenue.

Allen, the author of Virginia's ``no parole'' policy, and of this massive prison-building program, is seeking to win the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Chuck Robb. Should Allen win, especially if Bush is elected President, he would likely push these barbaric policies on a national scale.

The following (abridged) interview with attorney Paul Livingston was conducted on May 8 by Marianna Wertz.

[NF]: Can you tell me what the charges are in your lawsuits? You told Bill Sizemore of The Virginian-Pilot, where I read about the suits, that ``it was as close to a concentration camp or an experience of slavery as anyone would expect to come in this country.''

[Livingston]: Right, and I will elucidate on that, if you want. What they did here [in New Mexico] is, they had a murder of a guard in a Wackenhut prison and a small riot that followed for a few hours.

Subsequent to that, after about three days, they rounded up a group of prisoners, 108 of them, and shipped them off to Wallens Ridge. The way they did it, was they took them in the middle of the night. They put them in chains and they took them on a two-hour bus ride to the airport in Albuquerque, and held them for awhile on the runway. They then loaded them onto an airplane and brought them to a small airport in Tennessee, Tri-County Regional Airport.

No Due Process

[NF]: Were these people who were involved in the riot and murder?

[Livingston]: That's a good question. Not one of them was involved in the riot or the murder of the guard. In fact, many of them were in completely different places, like a small group of them, seven of them, were in a philosophy class, with a Lutheran minister who is their teacher, clearly far away from anything that happened. Others of them did what they were supposed to do in an event like that: They locked themselves in their cells. Others were not even arguably anywhere near the whole effort.

Overall, there was no due process. There were no charges. There was nothing. There was just the announcement of the Governor and the Corrections Secretary that those who ``take the bull by the horns deserve to be gored,'' or something like that. They made a number of cliche@aa-like statements about how bad these people were, and how they were going to be punished, by being sent to one of the worst prisons in the country.

The allegations in the complaint are multiple. It starts with due process, then goes to cruel and unusual punishment, because, on arrival at Wallens Ridge, they were uniformly terrorized, beaten, pushed around, or otherwise abused.

[NF]: Were these largely Hispanic inmates?

[Livingston]: No, they are a good spectrum of New Mexico prisoners, with perhaps a high concentration of black people. What the prisoners report is that they were uniformly abused, no matter what racial background they were. It wasn't subtle or anything. It was outright threatened that they were going to leave in pine boxes, that the Ku Klux Klan would get them, just outright terrorism. And these are guys who were medium- and minimum-security prisoners. They weren't the hard-core that is supposed to go to a supermax prison. And they didn't do anything.

One of the more interesting things that happened here is that, upon arrival at Wallens Ridge, my understanding is that without any records or papers, they were accused of killing the guard. They were told that they were the ``guard-killers,'' and they were questioned, and when they weren't getting the answer that they wanted, they gave them a shock with their electroshock Taser weapons.

They had a series of incidents involving coming into the cells and beating people up. Everyone reports some sort of overzealous and excessive use of force on arrival.

Of course, in that period of time, which ranged from about 30 days to the present, to eight months, the prisoners are kept in this kind of segregation with no programming, nothing to do, extreme restrictions on their ability to do anything other than to sit in a cell and be miserable.

[NF]: I understand there is not even access to religious worship.

[Livingston]: There's some access for a few people, but for most of the people, including the Catholics from New Mexico, the Spanish people, there was very little, if not no, access.

[NF]: I understand they are let out of their cells one hour a day in chains. Is that correct?

[Livingston]: Not at all. Not even an hour a day. Many of them report going seven to 14 days without a shower and an equivalent time without any exercise.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

[NF]: That certainly sounds like a concentration camp. You also charged slavery. What did you mean by that?

[Livingston]: I was getting there. The first charge is the Fourteenth Amendment, due process. The second is the Eighth Amendment, cruel and unusual punishment. The third charge that I put in is an interesting one in the prison context, and that's the Fourth Amendment charge, the unreasonable searches and seizures. Although you normally don't have that in the prison context, where a search is routine and everyone is kind of seized, in the sense that their liberty is impaired, at Wallens Ridge they put you in chains and don't let you out of your cell unless there are a weapon, a shotgun on you at all times, chains in three places--shackles, handcuffs, chains--and just this kind of incredible, restrictive, debasing, humiliating kind of atmosphere.

One of the lawyers from here, a public defender working on some of the habeas cases, went to Wallens Ridge and reported that he was just astounded, because they would take these men and bring them in for a visit with their attorney, and strip them, and search them with considerable indignity, and put them into the little isolation booth/telephone booth, with bulletproof glass, where they can be seen every minute. Then they're allowed to talk on the telephone with the attorney. Then on getting out of this booth, he reports, they stripped them again, searched them again, the same way, and led them off with all the chains, back to their cells, thereby certainly discouraging the idea of visiting an attorney, if nothing else. And certainly discouraging the attorney. He quit a few weeks ago and went to work for a private attorney who's been working on prison reform stuff.

That's a kind of a Fourth Amendment claim. The searches are unreasonable. The seizures and restrictions are unreasonable. Particularly, remember that these are people who are basically small criminals who have not done anything wrong beyond their original offense.

[NF]: Were they mostly drug offenders?

[Livingston]: Yes, a lot of them. A lot of cocaine trafficking, that kind of thing. They call [it] possession trafficking here. I don't know if they do that everywhere.

[NF]: No, I've never heard of that.

[Livingston]: What I saw was a gross violation of, first of all, due process rights, and then civil rights, then probably some criminal activities--and that's something we haven't really mentioned, but I'd like to see some of those guards from Virginia go to prison.

[NF]: You didn't complete what you were saying about slavery.

[Livingston]: The badges and incidents of slavery are what are prohibited under the Thirteenth Amendment. When you take people and you put them in chains, and you take them to a place and tie them up, and put them in a cell, and tell them they are just like animals, and you can't give them any work to do, or anything to think about, or any legal access, or any relative contact, or anything else, and that's the situation they were in for, for about the first month, all of them, and some of them still to this date. When you don't allow them to have a phone call with an attorney that isn't monitored, and that is very, very difficult to get, and you don't allow them to have more than one book every two weeks in their cell--they've got incredible restrictions--and you force them to cut their hair, no matter what their religious beliefs; you get a long litany of things they've done that sound an awful lot like slavery.

Prison Slave Labor

[NF]: One of the reasons I asked this is that we have documented that Virginia is in the forefront of the use of prison labor as slave labor. There's a brochure from Virginia Correctional Enterprises, showing a prison guard tower and saying, if your company wants good workers who are inexpensive and never complain, come to VCE.

[Livingston]: New Mexico pays 15 cents per hour to prisoners who work. But that is a whole other issue. Ours is the opposite side of the coin: The idleness, not the work, gets to us. The psychological aspect of putting an already mentally-ill prisoner, perhaps, in this kind of atmosphere and locking them up this way, and then coming down as heavy as they do on them, when they talk back or say anything or do anything.

Then on top of that, I'm totally convinced that there is the creation of incidents for absolutely no reason. I've heard many, many stories that I totally believe. For example, the guards will put the food tray outside the food slot, with a cup of water or juice balanced on the edge of it, so that when the inmate pulls the tray in, the cup falls to the ground, and he's charged with throwing food at a guard. That's one of the little ploys they use.

Another little device they use, and this leads into my Fourth Amendment claim, is they make the prisoners stand with their legs spread as far apart as the chains will allow them to, and then they stomp on the middle of the chain, thus causing the prisoner to fall over on his face.

You saw the thing that Bill Sizemore reported about the prisoners from Virginia watching out the window [while the beating of the newly arrived New Mexico prisoners was going on]?

[NF]: Yes.

[Livingston]: Well, to this day, the New Mexico Corrections Department is saying ``nothing happened; these people weren't mistreated; we have absolute confidence in the Virginia Corrections Department and what they've done to them.'' And they've given out little, what the prisoners call ``merit badges'' to them, they come as little badges with the New Mexico logo on them or something, and given them out to the Wallens Ridge guards.

[NF]: The New Mexico authorities did that?

[Livingston]: Yes, for the wonderful work they're doing in the prisons! So we have that kind of thing. Our Corrections Secretary, Rob Perry, actually purchased a pile of rocks for the prisoners to spend time breaking up. This was a separate incident. But there was such a public outcry against it that they still have the pile of rocks, apparently; they haven't gotten any prisoners to break them up.

[NF]: When do you expect your suit to be heard?

[Livingston]: My main concern right now is not getting this heard, as getting it under way and filed and served. What I have decided is that this should not be, and I'm firmly convinced of this, this should not be a class action, because every one of these people has his own case that is in one way very consistent with everyone else's case, the same kind of things happened; but in another way, very personal. They're suffering in their own way from the experience, each of them, some of them much more and some of them much less, but all of them have some effects from an experience like that.

I can't see any experience in our society that rises quite to the level--unless maybe being an innocent person being put to death and that kind of thing--that rises to the level of injustice that this does. What I see in these people, the ones who are back and that I'm able to talk to comparatively frequently, is a total conviction that something terribly wrong was done to them, that there was a Constitutional injustice perpetrated upon them, and that they would very much like to do something about it.

`Psychological Trauma'

[NF]: Our concern here, is that the author of this policy, George Allen, is now running for U.S. Senate, and it's quite possible that he will win, and it's his prison policy on which he won election as Governor and on which, at least in part, he will win election as Senator, should that happen. Virginia is the former capital of the Confederacy and there is a very large population here that wants to see these policies go nationwide, particularly if it's under a George Bush administration. That's the political side of it.

We've been told that people in medium-security prisons here in Virginia are having their security classifications raised so that they can be sent to fill the empty beds at Wallens Ridge and Red Onion.

[Livingston]: That's another aspect of this. We understand that there's some personal relationship between Rob Perry, our Corrections Secretary, and [Ron] Angelone, [Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections], that they play golf together or something like that.

[NF]: Well, Angelone was in Nevada for years.

[Livingston]: Rob Perry is actually an attorney and he's also a prosecutor. He also has some higher aspirations, but what is really funny about this situation is that our Governor, Gary Johnson, is, as you probably heard--

[NF]: Pushing dope legalization.

[Livingston]: Right. Governor Johnson is our leading defendant because he proudly, and, apparently with some knowledge of what he was doing, authorized all of this personally, and has gone out on a limb approving all of the things that have happened. But we do have an interesting situation, because the Attorney General, Patricia Madrid, has asked for an FBI investigation, and that is under way.

[NF]: Just make sure somebody watches those FBI agents when they're in there!

[Livingston]: What they have done is they've called people out and done some interviews with some of these people, who for the first time got to talk to someone where they didn't do the bit with the guard right over their shoulder.

[NF]: Let me just say one thing. I think the work you're doing, and that journalists and others are doing in the political fight against this, including on the death-penalty cases with the growing movement for a moratorium, is very important. I just wanted to say, keep it up. This country is going down the tubes in the direction you talked about. This is really fascism, what they're doing.

[Livingston]: Well, I think so and I feel this is much more vital in terms of the number of people involved and the whole fabric of our society and what it does to it.

I really think we've got these people inflicting psychological trauma at the very least on them, to say nothing of the physical stuff. Some of them still have physical scars from their experience. They kind of point proudly to their ankles and say ``Look what they did to me.'' The whole idea of allowing this kind of treatment of human beings, it's just incredible, that people will do that, and what kind of personality becomes a guard at Wallens Ridge and abuses the prisoners who come in, and then thinks he's a good person somehow?

[NF]: He's the kind of person who still flies the Confederate flag outside his house.

[Livingston]: I understand that the warden [at Wallens Ridge] has his own Confederate collection. When a delegation from Connecticut went to Wallens Ridge, they went into the warden's office and they found he had his own private collection of Civil War memorabilia.

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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac

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