HARTFORD, CT--In a victory for prisoners' rights, state officials said today they will move inmates under their care out of a notorious "Supermax" prison in rural Virginia where two Connecticut prisoners have died in the last 18 months.
The move came less than six months after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal civil rights lawsuit charging that the state acted with "deliberate indifference" by knowingly allowing the brutal mistreatment of inmates under its care at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia, a maximum security prison known as a "Supermax."
"It is unfortunate that two prisoners had to die and a lawsuit had to be filed before Connecticut officials decided to act," said David Fathi, an attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project, which filed the case in U.S. District Court here together with the ACLU's Connecticut affiliate.
"Despite officials' statements that the change was made for administrative costs and reasons," Fathi stated, "It's hard to interpret the decision as anything but a direct result of mounting legal pressures on the Department of Correction."
In addition to the ACLU lawsuit, those pressures included a scathing report from the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, a multimillion dollar lawsuit by the family of a prisoner who committed suicide, the investigation of mental health conditions by the Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, and ongoing protests by families of the Wallens Ridge prisoners.
Controversy over Connecticut's use of Wallens Ridge has centered over the past year on the death of two inmates: David Tracy by suicide in April 2000 and Lawrence Frazier in July 2000 from a medical condition that the Virginia state medical examiner concluded was aggravated by the repeated use of an electric "stun gun."
The ACLU's class-action lawsuit named Department of Correction Commissioner John J. Armstrong as the sole defendant, citing his "deliberate indifference" to "the risk that [Connecticut prisoners] will suffer serious physical injury or death" at the hands of Wallens Ridge guards.
"We are pleased that Connecticut prisoners are being moved out of Wallens Ridge, and we remind the Commissioner that no matter where Connecticut inmates are housed, he is responsible for their health and safety," said Toya Alek Graham, an attorney with the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union.
Despite the state's move, Graham said, for the moment the ACLU lawsuit continues. "As long as Connecticut prisoners are housed in Wallens Ridge, we will continue to fight for their rights," she said.
The case, Joslyn v. Armstrong, was filed in U.S. District Court in Connecticut by Fathi of the ACLU's National Prison Project; Graham and Philip D. Tegeler of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union; and cooperating attorney Alan Neigher of the firm Byelas and Neigher in Westport.
To find out more about the Wallens Ridge State Prison, read the Amnesty International report: "Cruel and inhumane treatment at Virginia supermaximum security prisons".