The tour of Red Onion State Prison had moved on to a common area when Attorney General Jason Miyares and his entourage turned their attention to an unusual device on the wall: a computer screen that listed songs the inmates have access to. There was much chatter among some of the younger staff members about how the first two songs listed were “Jump Then Fall” and “Back to December” by Taylor Swift.
“They can download these to their iPads,” someone said.
“They have iPads?” Miyares asked.
Yes, inmates can purchase their own computer tablets – televisions, too. That sounds lenient, but prison officials encourage that because the devices serve to keep inmates occupied (and some inmates use them for classes or religious programming). Suddenly Miyares was not so interested in Taylor Swift.
“I’ve got to make sure they can’t contact victims,” he said, and bounded up the steps to the mezzanine to find warden Rick White. The warden assured him that the inmates can’t email victims – inmate email is restricted so they can only send messages to those who allow it. With that assurance, the tour continued on, with Miyares musing about whether Swift would ever emulate Johnny Cash, famous for his prison concerts at Folsom and San Quentin in California. “I wonder if I tweeted out being in Red Onion and seeing Taylor Swift on the playlist and tagged her in what she would do?”
Prisons don’t make for many light-hearted moments, but that was one on Miyares’ tour of Red Onion on Thursday – and even that was interrupted by a reminder of the seriousness of just what a prison is about.
The attorney general is spending much of this week touring Southwest Virginia – hosting a roundtable on crime in Roanoke, discussing tourism in Tazewell County, hosting a “thank you” breakfast for law enforcement in Norton, talking economic development in Bristol, visiting a mental health provider in Abingdon. Not on his public schedule was Thursday’s tour of Red Onion State Prison in Wise County. It’s not surprising that a state attorney general would visit a prison, but the unusual angle here was that Miyares brought along the two people most responsible for the prison’s construction: former Gov. George Allen and former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (who before that was Allen’s secretary of public safety).
A prison might seem an odd thing to be proud of, but Allen is very much proud of Red Onion, a product of his administration in the mid-1990s. “The VCU engineering school, the Smart Road, and Red Onion – those are my monuments,” Allen told me as we walked through the yard at Red Onion. (For those not in the know, the Smart Road is a testbed in Montgomery County where the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, now the second biggest university-affiliated transportation institute in the country, and others conduct research into new transportation technologies.) Allen sees those three things as emblematic of his administration – he was known for declaring (like the current governor) that Virginia was “open for business” and he was known for being tough on crime.
For Allen and Kilgore (the twin brother of House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County), Red Onion and its counterpart, Wallens Ridge, aren’t simply a necessary function of public safety, they’re a source of jobs in a part of Virginia where jobs have been hard to come by. “For Jerry Kilgore and me, going to Red Onion is particularly heartwarming because it was a battle to get the Board of Corrections to accept the free land,” Allen said.
At the law enforcement breakfast in Norton, and later on the prison tour itself, Allen regaled listeners with how the prison came to be. He had come into office vowing to abolish parole – which would create a need for more prisons. He also reminded listeners that Virginia at the time was being sued for having overcrowded prisons, and that he had assured voters he would only build prisons in communities that wanted them. A proposal to build a prison in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore was rejected for that very reason – local opposition. Localities in Southwest Virginia, though, were eager to have prisons. “We were all living through the boom and bust of the coal industry,” Jerry Kilgore told me. Here were 400 permanent jobs for each prison. The prisons were an easy sell in Southwest.
Pittston Coal offered free land – an old coal mine called Red Onion on a ridge almost in Kentucky. The Board of Corrections was not so impressed. Allen said the board, dominated by holdovers from the previous Democratic administration of Douglas Wilder, was skeptical that the hollowed-out ground could support a prison. When the board refused to accept the land, “I fired the board,” Allen said, and stacked the new board with retired sheriffs from Southwest Virginia. “I knew they would have good sense,” he said – meaning they’d accept the land. Critics at the time (and maybe still) complained that Allen was building too many prisons and would point today to the fact that Red Onion accepts some prisoners from out of state as evidence of overbuilding. Allen sees it differently. “Virginia is making money on this,” he said, because other states pay to house some of their inmates here.
Allen took a personal interest in the construction of both Red Onion and Wallens Ridge. (Red Onion is the more infamous of the two because it’s considered a supermax prison for the state’s most violent offenders. Wallens Ridge has a lower security classification.) The engineering concerns about building on an old mine site were real; to make the property suitable for construction required something called dynamic deep compaction.
“They keep pounding it,” Allen said, in layman’s terms. (He always did have a politician’s gift for taking complex subjects and turning them into sound bites.) “They even let me operate the machinery as governor – to the worry of everyone.”
At Wallens Ridge, a hillside needed to be dynamited. “Jerry knows how much I like fireworks – real fireworks, not like this crap we sell in Virginia but the kind they have in Tennessee and South Carolina,” Allen said. As governor, he pushed the button to blow up that hillside and still gets a kick out of describing it.
Red Onion opened in 1998, by which time Allen was out of office. Thursday was the first time he’d visited his handiwork and he seemed thrilled – almost giddy. Miyares and his entourage met with Red Onion staff in the prison’s gym – more on that speechifying to come. Allen studied the prison logo at center court – a map of Virginia with a star marking the prison. “I love that!” he exclaimed, pointing to the star. “I love that dot!” He then insisted the key members of the entourage line up and get their photo taken by the logo – and when he saw the first photo had people standing on the words, he made them line up again for a re-take. Outside, between buildings, Allen heard dogs barking and interrogated the warden about why. “So why are they barking? Because dogs bark? Anything agitate them or do they do it to remind the inmates?” The answer was that the dogs are trained to bark at the sign of almost any human movement – they bark a lot. Later, when he saw a guard with a dog, Allen insisted on a photo: “Everybody loves dogs.”
Allen, of course, is out of office, so he can afford such levity (and even when he was in office, Allen was known for being somewhat irrepressible). Miyares, being in office, was in a more serious fact-finding mode. Besides quizzing the warden on what email access inmates have (restricted), he also asked about:
- Staffing: The warden said that he has about 30 vacancies, but that applications had doubled since the recent state budget raised the pay for correctional officers (starting pay is now about $44,000). “Thank you, Governor Youngkin,” Miyares said. Jerry Kilgore said there are no staff vacancies right now at Wallens Ridge.
- Capacity: Red Onion currently houses 730 inmates, down from its official capacity of 1,200 because part of the prison is being renovated with new water lines.
- COVID-19: There are currently no COVID cases at Red Onion.
- How inmates are classified: The color of their jumpsuit denotes their security classification. The Miyares group toured the strictest classification building, where some inmates are locked in individual cells either for their own safety or the safety of others. Posted on the door of each one is their picture and any specific instructions about handling. One read: “Double cuff.” Another building had a door with the warning: “Stab vest required.” Former state Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, said he toured Red Onion years ago and a guard was stabbed during the tour.
- Escapes: No one has ever escaped from Red Onion. (And seeing the place, I can understand why. Security was so strict that even the attorney general had to surrender his driver’s license before the tour, presumably lest it fall into the wrong hands – and also yet another way to make sure that any visitors check in before they leave.)
In addressing the assembled correctional officers, Miyares struck a somber tone as he referenced the victims of all the men housed at Red Onion. “You’ll never meet them, you’ll never hear from them but they are able to sleep at night because of what you do,” he said. “They are able to live their lives with some sense of normalcy because of what you do.”
As the entourage was walking from one building to another, a guard holding open one of the doors recognized Allen and offered a greeting: “Thank you for building this.”