Helen Trainor reads about 50 letters a month from women at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. “I actually read personal letters, unlike a lot of people, and take them seriously,” she says. As part of her job as director of the Virginia Institutionalized Persons Project (at the Legal Aid Justice Center), she has to know what goes on in jails across Virginia.
Trainor says that conditions at Fluvanna “began to resemble the conditions at Virginia’s strictest prisons, as opposed to a Class 3 prison that it is.” The letters described discrimination and segregation, which prompted Trainor and other volunteers from Legal Aid to meet with Senator Frank Ruff, Jr. (15th District) in a church basement to discuss what could be done.
Then, on Monday, December 28, the Associated Press reported that Barbara Wheeler, warden at Fluvanna, which is the state’s largest women’s prison, will be replaced by Wendy Hobbs. Larry Traylor, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections confirmed to C-VILLE that Wheeler is retiring, though Wheeler was unavailable for an interview.
Cynthia Neff has also been working with Legal Aid where she has heard the stories first-hand.
“We were hearing from a number of people that they were discriminated against because they looked butch, aggressive-looking women,” she says. In fact, the Associated Press reported in June that gay inmates were segregated, with lesbian inmates with short hair and baggy clothes kept apart in the “butch-wing.”
Trainor says that things began to change about a year ago when Michael Frame became the new major, or head of security, at Fluvanna. The previous major was convicted for having sex with female inmates, says Trainor.
Neff says Frame proceeded to “toughen the place up.”
According to Trainor, women were forced to walk in single file to prevent inmates from talking to each other. Touching other inmates was also prohibited.
Trainor, who for matters of privacy can’t identify inmates or quote directly from the letters, has paraphrased their content. In one instance, an inmate questions whether the new no-touching rule is conducive to her rehabilitation. “Where does this rule come from? I tried to find them in the IOP’s (internal operating procedures) but I couldn’t.” In another, a woman writes that a mentally ill inmate was kept in solitary confinement for months. “When it’s time for her to take her shower, she is lead, shackled and naked, down the hall, with a dog leash attached to her shackles, by a male guard.”
The Associated Press, which, according to Neff was tipped by Legal Aid about the allegations, reports that Senator Ruff asked the Department of Corrections also to investigate claims that the prison reduced prisoners’ access to religious services.
Traylor told C-VILLE a review of the facility is “still being finalized.”
“It’s a sad state of affairs that the only way to get things changed in prisons is to get a state senator involved,” says Trainor. Calls to Ruff were not immediately returned.
“I have to believe that the major is sensitive to the adverse publicity here and will reconsider the way in which he is running that place,” says Trainor.
Reached for comment at the facility, Major Frame directed all calls to Traylor.
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