Behind Bars

Abu Ghraib Comes to Amerika:
Torture Unit Under Construction in Virginia’s Remote Red Onion State Prison1

By Kevin “Rashid” Johnson

Virginia justifies a torture unit

Last summer (2010), a Black prisoner was strangled to death on a segregation exercise yard at Virginia’s remote Red Onion State Prison. A white prisoner allegedly committed the killing. This incident caps a long history of Red Onion officials manipulating and facilitating racial conflict between prisoners. But instead of exposing and addressing this fact, this tragedy has been used to justify the secretive construction of a torture unit at the prison.

But for lack of funds and plausible justification, such a unit would have opened long ago. This recent incident has now given Red Onion’s warden, Tracy S. Ray, both his selling point and justification. The unit has been approved, and constructed in the prison’s B-3 housing unit, with enough money expended “to build a whole new prison,” according to one Red Onion lieutenant.

Intended candidates for B-3 were listed long before the unit was constructed, with my name at the top. Those selected were primarily Black prisoners distinguished for resisting and challenging the prison’s notoriously abusive and racist conditions.

B-3 assignments will be punitive, brutal, and indefinite, inflicting torture designed for and used against “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib detention centers. By admission of high-ranking officials, B-3’s purpose will be to mentally break resistant prisoners, the same rationale given by U.S. intelligence agencies for pursuing studies and experiments in mental torture following World War II. The implications are ominous.

Advanced mental torture—Amerikan style

In a 2007 article, I showed the general parallel between the torturous conditions of modern U.S. prisons and the CIA and U.S. military’s advanced torture techniques (psychological warfare)2. B-3 now demonstrates a clear, deliberate link between the two, and that what began as techniques developed for Amerikan “enemies,” is now being directed at U.S. citizens. This will inevitably spread.

In his detailed 2006 expose3, professor Alfred McCoy exposed the CIA/military’s advanced torture methods. He traced the CIA’s efforts over 50 years, including a decade-long project costing over $1 billion a year, to “crack the code of human consciousness.” The agency tried everything from drugs (including truth serum, mescaline and LSD) to shock treatment, with little success.

Also, the CIA funded behavioral studies at top universities, like Yale, Princeton, Harvard and McGill. These efforts, however, bore fruit.

Beginning at McGill, Dr. Donald O. Hebb found that within 48 hours, a person could be reduced to psychotic breakdown by shutting out environmental stimulation. He confined student volunteers inside a small cubicle for several days blindfolded, with soundproof earmuffs and thick mitts on. He also acknowledged that prison solitary confinement produces the same results, only more gradually.

This was the CIA’s first breakthrough—“sensory deprivation.”

The second breakthrough came from torture techniques studied at Cornell University Medical Center, one of the most effective being “self-inflicted pain,” in which the victim was made to stand at length, until the body’s fluids drained into the legs causing swelling, erupting boils, hallucinations and kidney failure. During this process the victim is told repeatedly, “You’re doing this to yourself. Cooperate with us and you can sit down.”

The CIA found combining these two techniques produced phenomenal results while leaving little evidence of abuse. This became its torture model, which was encoded and distributed worldwide in its torture handbook, “The Kubark Counterintelligence Manual.”

Under General Geoffrey Miller, in 2002, Guantanamo Bay was converted into a torture research lab, where the CIA model was enhanced by adding two key techniques consisting of attacks on one’s cultural sensitivities (such as Arab males’ sensitivity to gender issues and sexual identity) and targeting one’s personal fears and vulnerabilities.

By 2003, the CIA torture model was perfected, combining a multi-level attack on the human psyche, with: 1) sensory deprivation; 2) self-inflicted pain; and targeting 3) cultural sensitivities, and 4) personal fears and vulnerabilities.

In response to the unexpected Iraqi insurgency that arose in 2003 against the U.S. invasion, Miller was sent from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib to implement his techniques against captured Iraqis. It was these practices that came out in the 2004 torture scandals surrounding Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Investigations revealed a unit of men at Guantanamo reduced under these techniques to the mental level of toddlers.

As McCoy exposed, torture experts agree that psychological (or “clean”) torture is far more dangerous, destructive, and lasting than physical torture, and leads to dangerous ego distortions, escalating cruelty, and lasting emotional disorders in its perpetrators.

The B-3 torture unit

B-3 will be Red Onion’s second torture unit, informally called “superseg” (segregation within segregation). The first superseg unit was constructed and opened in October 2003 in Red Onion’s C-4 housing unit, where extensive physical abuse by guards against restrained prisoners, with complicity of medical staff, occurred frequently. A Red Onion sergeant, Delmer Tate, who has now been promoted to lieutenant, had charge of C-4. He is now to run the B-3 superseg.

I was among the first prisoners confined to C-4, the conditions and brutality of which moderated following my compiling and circulating reports of the abuses and co-founding prisoner advocacy groups with concerned outside citizens, which generated public protests.

It is a proven pattern that officials tend to resort to forms of “clean” torture following exposure of physical torture. This is the purpose of B-3.

In B-3, the cells will be constantly illuminated with florescent lighting, a condition found by U.S. courts to constitute per se torture. There will be no view to the outside world.

Red Onion’s cells remain generally cold and in B-3 all furniture, except a heavily fortified steel bed-frame and toilet/sink combination unit, have been removed. There is nowhere to sit and write comfortably nor store what little belongings one may keep.

For a few hours a week, outside exercise will be allowed consisting of standing idle inside a small dog cage enclosed on all sides and above in Plexiglas (a literal sweatbox in summer months). The cages are in turn enclosed within a two story concrete structure that permits a view of only part of the sky directly overhead. The only clothing allowed to protect against Red Onion’s freezing and sub-freezing mountain weather are only one layer of thin khaki pants and shirt, a light jacket, low top cloth deck shoes, regular socks, t-shirt and boxers. Gloves and long johns are not permitted.

The cells are constructed so verbal contact is made difficult and prisoners cannot see each other.

The unit is saturated with surveillance equipment, admittedly to monitor, record and study prisoners’ every action and their adjustments to, and the unit’s effects on them. Guards also remain in the unit at all times, maintaining visual and audio surveillance of the prisoners; just as under the controlled torture studies at Guantanamo.

B-3 is clearly constructed to inflict the multi-leveled assault on the psyche developed and perfected by the CIA/military, and to permit extensive observation and study of its effects.

Sensory deprivation is blatant. There is a total loss of stimulation of normal social environments and relationships; little to do to occupy one’s time, and attended by the stress and chilling effect of living under constant surveillance. This can quickly produce extreme mental pain and damage by creating and denying an increased need for environmental stimulation. And this addresses only one aspect of the four level assault. Resultant breakdowns and “behavior” caused by the mental torture will then be cited as “proof” of their need to be and remain in B-3.

Then there’s the “self-inflicted pain” of being made to suffer B-3’s conditions as a consequence of prisoners resisting and challenging abuses at the prison.

There will be attacks on cultural sensitivities in being made to live under constant surveillance with little or no privacy. Strip searches will be conducted within a cage inside the open unit in a manner particularly offensive in male prison culture.

The constant preparation and widely reputed tendency of Red Onion officials to use extreme physical violence to compel all levels of prisoner submissiveness emphasizes personal vulnerability. In B-3, guards will remain even more vigilant and over-eager to use violence to “enforce compliance.”

Reminiscent of the Chinese toilets outlawed decades ago, in B-3 prisoners will be unable to flush their own commodes. Guards will flush them from outside the cells.

The lies that justify Red Onion

Virginia officials have constantly lied to the public to justify Red Onion and its sister supermax, Wallens Ridge State Prison, which opened in 1998 and 1999, respectively. First they claimed need of these 2900 supermax beds to control multitudes of belligerent prisoners. Then they claimed prisoners housed in supermaxes would never leave prison because of long sentences. Both claims were quickly exposed to be false.

In a critical 1999 report4, Human Rights Watch found that Virginia officials had a review of their prison population conducted before the supermaxes opened which showed Virginia had very few unruly prisoners and extremely low levels of prisoner violence. It did find, however, extreme levels of violence inflicted at Red Onion by its predominantly white staff against its near totally Black prisoner population, and that most of the prisoners at Red Onion were eligible for release or didn’t meet the Department of Corrections’ [DOC] own supermax criteria. The report also found that officials kept “adjusting supermax housing criteria not to reflect genuine security and management needs, but simply to fill what would otherwise be half-empty-but very expensive-facilities.”

These exposures led to many prisoners being removed from the supermaxes, and the DOC’s contracting at an unprecedented level to house out-of-state prisoners at these prisons. These prisoners were soon withdrawn by their own prison systems due to suffering the same brutality as Virginia prisoners and massive protests and lawsuits in their own states.

Having lost its appeal for out-of-state contracts, the DOC ended in eliminating its entire supermax security level and converted Red Onion into a long-term segregation prison. Under the lash of outside protests, first a token Black warden was assigned to Red Onion as window dressing, under whom abuse and racism escalated. He was then replaced by Tracy S. Ray, who came on board with an agenda to repair the prison’s image, curb protests and negative media, and emphasize psychological coercion (especially “behavioral incentives”) against prisoners as control mechanisms over brutal violence.

To justify Red Onion’s continued operations, officials manufactured “problems” with gang activity. This process began with the creation of “gang pods” in 2004, where suspected rival gang members were forcibly housed together hoping to provoke and facilitate violent conflicts. Red Onion officials have long manipulated white versus Black prisoner conflicts.

Often, simply expressing urban culture earns one a “gang” label. Even Black civil rights groups and leaders are labeled gangs and gang-related. The label is used at Red Onion as a tool of racial persecution and repression.

Indeed, the recent prisoner death occurred under these circumstances. The prisoner accused of the killing is a self-admitted member of a white gang, while the one killed was a “documented” member of a Black street gang. Yet they were housed in the same unit together, facilitating the fatality.

However, the problem of officially manipulated violence is not being addressed. Rather, a tragedy of their own doing is being used to justify Red Onion’s continued existence. And their operation of a torture unit will in no way resolve the basis of what occurred. Lies and evasions feature in DOC public relations, while in reality its remote prisons, like Red Onion, have operated to maintain lucrative corporate investment climates in otherwise impoverished South West Virginia, with urban Blacks and Browns made the victims of their abusive conditions.

Red Onion a fief unto itself

Red Onion has always operated outside both DOC and public oversight; being run by a closed society of friends and families from the local rural racially segregated white communities, where racism is a general feature of local culture.

In fact, secrecy, lack of oversight and corruption have long been features of Virginia prisons recognized and criticized by federal courts for decades.

As the Commission of Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found in its 2006 report, public exposure and oversight are important deterrents to prison abuse. And this is what Red Onion officials fear—exposure; as does anyone who has something to hide.

After World War II Germans taken on tours of Nazi concentration camps were shocked and appalled at the brutality and tortures committed by their fellow Germans, and swore they’d have opposed it if only they’d have known. Those reading this article are now in the know. These methods of advanced torture are not going to end with just Red Onion, nor just with prisoners. Nor are they intended to, which is why such expensive and extensive measures are being taken at Red Onion to monitor and record the effects of the B-3 torture unit on its victims. As professor McCoy observed:

“Torture is an extraordinarily dangerous thing. It taps into the deepest recesses of human consciousness, where creation and destruction coexist, where the infinite human capacity for kindness and the infinite human capacity for cruelty coexist, and it has a powerful perverse appeal. Once it starts, and both the perpetrators and the powerful who command them let it spread, it spreads out of control....

“That’s why it’s necessary to maintain an absolute prohibition on torture, There is no such thing as a little bit of torture. The whole myth of scientific surgical torture, which academic torture advocates in this country came up with, that’s impossible. That cannot operate. It will inevitably spread.”

And it’s already started. From Abu Ghraib to Red Onion.

Kevin “Rashid” Johnson is Defense Minister of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party—Prison Chapter (NABPP-PC); no affiliation with the New Black Panther Party. His writings and artwork have been widely circulated in “underground media” and in Right On!  (newsletter of the NABPP-PC). His artwork and selected articles can be seen at; also the NABPP-PC has a website under construction at He is the author of Defying the Tomb: Selected Prison Writings and Art of Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, Featuring Exchanges with an Outlaw, (Kersplebedeb, 2010). Address: No. 1007485, Red Onion State Prison, P.O. Box 1900, Pound, VA 24279. 

1 This is a condensed version of a November, 2010 article written under the same title, which can be read in its more in-depth original version at The B-3 torture unit was completed and opened at Red Onion on February 1, 2011. As a result of exposure and protest generated by the original version of this article, certain planned features of B-3 were modified, or not implemented, but its overall structure and function remained as originally intended.

2 Kevinn “Rashid” Johnson, “Amerikan Prisoners Are Government-sponsored Torture,” Socialism and Democarcy, Vol. 21, No. 1 (March, 2009).

3 Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror, (New York, Henry Holt, 2006).

4 Human Rights Watch. Red Onion State Prison: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Virginia (1999)