Back to Red Onion State Prison — The Site of Entrenched Racism and Past Abuse (2023) by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson

On October 30,2023, I was transferred to Red Onion State Prison (ROSP), a Virgina prison with an extensive history of racism and abuse.

Red Onion’s notoriety goes back to when the prison first opened, with a 1999 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). I was held at ROSP when HRW investigated and reported on it, and I witnessed and suffered all the abuses and racism revealed in the report.

In fact, I spent many years afterward resisting and continuing to report on abuses at ROSP. In response, Virginia officials exiled and bounced me between numerous other state prison systems, landing me in some of the country’s most abusive state prisons.

When no other states would take me, Virginia was forced to accept me back, but this time I was placed in some of its less abusive prisons. But, I knew this would not last.

As I explained in a recent article, I knew I was about to come back to ROSP, or its sister super-max, Wallens Ridge State Prison (WRSP). Officials at Sussex State Prison (S1SP), where I was then housed, had planted a street knife in a general population cell that had been vacant for months. They moved me into that cell on Oct. 18, 2023, then raided it just a few hours later to “find” the weapon inside a compartment beneath the cell door.

As I recognized, it was a ploy to create a pretext to justify my transfer to ROSP or WRSP.

On October 30th, the plot to transfer me came to fruition, as did the aim to target me with old-style Red Onion abuse, which continues. First, I was assaulted!

Lethal Gas Assault

An all-white group of guards from a special tactical unit was sent to S1SP to transfer me. They woke me just after 6 am ordering me to come to the cell door to be handcuffed.

With the obvious intent to provoke my resistance, they attempted to have me submit to being cuffed in a regular small sized pair of handcuffs, cuffs designed to fit the wrists of a much smaller person. I am over 260 lbs and have medical orders for oversized cuffs because regular sized cuffs do not fit my wrists without cutting into them causing impaired circulation and injury if I wear them at length. Every ranking official and transportation officer at S1SP knew this.

I told these transport guards about my medical pass for oversized cuffs and asked them to contact ranking guards or the medical department for confirmation. They refused and proceeded, as I stood in only boxer shorts, to spray me repeatedly with large—indeed lethal—quantities of tear gas. The federal courts have established that 4-6 grams is an “estimated lethal dose” of gas when sprayed into a closed-in cell. I was sprayed with over 100 times this amount from two canisters—one of them a 46 oz. fire extinguisher-sized canister.

Only after I was gassed did several ranking S1SP officials come to the cell, including a Captain Ingram, Captain K. Johnson, Sergeant Gbeddy, and others. They each in turn confirmed my medical order for oversized cuffs and that I should not have been sprayed with gas for simply asking that it be honored.
They obtained an oversized pair of cuffs, put them on me and offered to place me in a hot shower to be “decontaminated,” which I declined. They knew, as did I, that hot water would only enhance the effects of the gas. At that point, Captains Ingram and Johnson made an interesting revelation while their body cameras were recording.

Both admitted that water (even cold water) does not flush the gas the Virginia prison system uses on prisoners from one’s skin, but actually reactivates and exacerbates the burning. They suggested I use milk, which is what they said they used when contaminated as they underwent Virginia Department of Corrections [sic!] (VDOC) training in the use of chemical weapons.

Captain Ingram is actually a VDOC chemical weapons instructor. Throughout the VDOC, however, gas is used frequently on prisoners, while the only form of ‘decontamination’ offered to us is with hot water showers in which the temperatures cannot be adjusted.

So not only does the VDOC abuse chemical weapons on prisoners in lethal quantities, it also uses as a pretended decontamination process, measures that they know enhance and prolong the burning effects of the gas.

In any case I wasn’t ‘decontaminated’ at all. A couple of cups of milk were poured over my face, the rest of my body however, remained covered in gas. Over a day later I was still burning from gas.

Transport torture

I was then taken to the S1SP transport area where I was searched and outfitted for the 7-8 hour ride to ROSP. All my personal property was left behind except a couple of books, a notebook, a cup, some loose papers, and a few hygiene items I’d had in my cell. None of my legal property was brought with me, although the officials knew I had numerous court filing deadlines including one expiring on November 3rd.

In the transportation area the white transport guards who’d gassed me refused to come into the cell to put transportation restraints on me. They expressed that my energy made clear that I intended to ‘correct’ them for what they’d done. They insisted that S1SP officials outfit me.

On the long ride to ROSP they didn’t turn on any AC but left the van sweltering, so that I was sweating the entire ride, to keep the gas on my skin inflamed. They also neither offered nor gave me water nor food the entire day.

We left S1SP at around 10 am and arrived at ROSP after 4 pm. We did not enter the prison until after 5 pm. I hadn’t received a meal since around 4 pm the previous day and had nothing to drink since around 8 pm that same night.

While in the S1SP transport area I reported experiencing chest pains. A nurse Bradley took my blood pressure which measured 152/105—dangerously high! Not only was nothing done, but I was not given my morning dose of blood pressure medications.

In addition to being left to suffer over 7 hours in a sweltering van, with burning flesh, erratic heart beat, chest pain, hunger and dehydration, I was made to ride in a “Freddie Gray” van—a transport with bare thick steel benches and walls with no padding or protection against being banged against its surfaces while the vehicle is in motion. Seat belts offer no protection either. Prisoner injuries in these vehicles are common. Indeed, their very purpose is to inflict pain and injury.

The transporting guards also felt the need to make repeated racist remarks referring to me, angered as they were because of being overruled by ranking S1SP officials who put me in the oversized handcuffs for the trip. Not only did they repeatedly refer to me as “nigger,” but one of the transport guards expressed that he wished he “could kill all niggers and inmates.” He also revealed that he had just been under investigation by the VDOC’s Special Investigation Unit for expressing this desire in the presence of VDOC administrators. He admitted nothing came of the ‘investigation’ except to teach him to “act” on his urges but “keep my mouth shut.”

It should be noted that the Special tactical unit of which these guards are a part that wears special green uniforms, is almost exclusively white and they specialize in the use of violence against Virginia’s disproportionately Black prisoner population. It is a likely recruiting unit for white supremacists like him.

Admitted Retaliation

Once at ROSP, ranking officials tried to force me to wear too small clothes from the prison’s transport area to the cellblock. Only after I stood naked in the holding cell following the strip search, refusing to put on the clothes, did they finally obtain sizes that fit me.

Once in my assigned cell at ROSP I was confronted by the warden, Rick White, who indirectly admitted the transfer was retaliatory. I was never given a classification hearing at S1SP as required by policy to be transferred. He revealed that the VDOC Interstate Compact Supervisor, Kyle Rosch, had a hand in the move to ROSP, with plans to send me out of state again. All of this on the heels of public protest about my having been thrown into solitary confinement at S1SP on October 19th upon the staged discovery of a weapon that could only have been brought in by a staff person in the previously vacant cell I had just been moved into.

Also exposed was that the move from S1SP was to block my seeking treatment for ongoing serious health problems. Not just side effects from the daily radiation treatment I recently underwent for several months, but symptoms consistent with congestive heart failure (CHF), for which VDOC and S1SP medical officials refuse to allow any diagnostic testing or treatment.

Just before the planted weapon incident I had been pressing complaints about denied medical attention to these conditions, which officials knew would likely soon escalate to my seeking public intervention.

Supporters who have followed my medical situation know I have suffered chronic undiagnosed swelling of my feet and ankles since July 2022, sometimes so bad I could not walk. Once I was seen in the ER for the condition and only because of public protests about refused care. At the hospital, doctors told me the swelling could be symptoms of heart health issues and my case should be followed up by hospital testing. No follow up ever occurred.

As the months passed, further symptoms of CHF developed, namely, rapid weight gain (from fluid retention), a chronic cough that worsens when lying down (often with fluid rattling in my lungs), chronic fatigue and lack of energy, and chest pains. Untreated CHF can cause heart attacks and strokes, and prove fatal at any moment.

Numerous medical professionals have stated that I have symptoms of CHF and likely have the condition itself. My cancer doctor at the Medical college of Virginia hospital, Dr. Alfredo Urdaneta, referred me to that hospital’s cardiac clinic for testing upon his belief that I have CHF from my symptoms he observed. CDOC and S1SP refused to honor this referral.

Medical professionals have also admitted that the likelihood of me having CHF, and its danger is increased by the fact that my family has a history of heart disease. My father suffered a heart attack about 15 years ago and my paternal uncle died from a heart attack at 30.

VDOC officials have maneuvered to deny me treatment for serious illnesses since I returned to the VDOC in 2021, at which time they had evidence of my cancer, and obstructed treatment for a year and a half. The treatment I did receive came only in response to public protest.

Several S1SP staff told me the move to transfer me away from S1SP was to prevent me from receiving care for these problems which require hospital diagnostic testing and treatment. No such treatment and testing facilities are available for VDOC prisoners in remote Wise County Virginia, where ROSP and WRSP are located. By moving me to Wise County I would be removed from Central and Eastern regions of the state where such hospital care is available for VDOC prisoners.

Back to the B-3 Torture Unit

Every time I find myself back at ROSP, I’m thrown into the B-3 torture unit. I wrote about this cellblock back when it was first constructed and opened at considerable taxpayer expense, as a stateside version of the infamous U.S. military/CIA torture research laboratory at Abu-Ghraib. This is exactly where I’ve been placed on October 30, 2023.

Filthy holes in the cell doors in which vermin fester, are where guards require everything to be passed through, including shoes, dirty clothes, meals, beverages, etc. Yet they are never cleaned.

When I briefly returned to Virginia in 2018, I was initially sent to ROSP and thrown in B-3. As soon as I publicized the conditions and treatments here and filed litigation I was abruptly moved to S1SP and put on Death Row until I was transferred out of state again, although I’ve never had a death sentence.

As Human Rights Watch exposed 25 years ago, racism is engendered in ROSP. Indeed its very operation has racist implications. It employs a totally white staff who come from self-segregated rural communities that are culturally hostile to, and exclude, people of color. The prison is populated almost totally by Blacks and Browns who are powerless and defenseless. This is a breeding ground for rabid white racists and a recipe for Jim Crow culture, which I’ve discussed before.

These super-max prisons—ROSP and WRSP—have never been needed. Every justification concocted for their ongoing operations since 1998 and 1999 have been exposed as lies, from those first unearthed by HRW until now. And with a new director, who himself hails from Wise County, Virginia, the apartheid structure of the VDOC is firmly set, but it must be unsettled!

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!

End notes

1. See HRW, “Red Onion State Prison: Super-maximum Security Confinement in Virginia”, 1999, <>
2. See Fourth Circuit U.S. Appeals Court case Benjamin vs Williams
3. See, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “Abu-Ghraib Comes to Amerika,” <>

Write to Rashid at:
Kevin “Rashid” Johnson #1007485
Red Onion State Prison
10800 H. Jack Rose Hwy.
Pound, VA 24279

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