The Suffering Inside
By Matthew Clark
As a former inmate at RRJ, I felt compelled to speak out to the public on behalf of the numerous other men and women who are confined and suffering behind those walls. While I’m not proud to say that I’ve been there numerous times due to poor mistakes regarding drug addiction and alcohol, that jail far exceeds what traditional punishment should be in American prisons; it is simply inhumane. During the last three previous times that I was incarcerated, between 2017 to 2021, I have witnessed terrible things not from incarcerated individuals themselves but rather from the corrections staff.
While I was there, I saw incarcerated individuals treated so horribly by correctional staff; they would verbally, emotionally, and physically abuse inmates. Correctional officers were notorious for planting contraband, such as weapons, drugs, or other minor items like tattoo guns, in individuals’ cells who they disliked so those individuals would be taken to solitary confinement. Colonel Jeffery Newton and Major Upshaw were both reassigned and demoted because of their incompetency when it came to a medical situation in the prison. Superintendent Carmen De Sadeir was hired to try and turn the prison’s conditions around, however she resigned shortly after accepting the position, stating to the media that it was one of the worst prison facilities she had ever worked in.
I was in RRJ during the onset of the Coronavirus-19 pandemic; they did not have a quarantine or medical ward specifically to handle COVID-19 cases. Guards themselves were not wearing masks or following their own safety protocols. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I was in the kitchen work detail. The pod that my cell was in was one of the first pods to have an outbreak of COVID-19; they decided to lock up all the other pods but continued to let the kitchen work detail individuals out to work in the kitchen. One kitchen worker complained of COVID-19 symptoms for four days before correctional officers finally took the individual to get tested. The administration came to our pod later that day to say he had been positive for COVID-19. Since his complaints were not taken seriously and he was still allowed to work in the kitchen, he had now possibly infected those who worked in the kitchen and in turn those in their housing pods. Instead of testing to see who was negative and positive they kept everyone in their cells within their housing pods and we were limited in our recreational time - we were all subjected to solitary confinement with one other person in our cells.
After I tested negative but my cellmate tested positive for COVID-19, it was several hours before he was moved into a pod, particularly for COVID-19 patients. I was given no medical care and was even harassed several times by corrections officers for filing complaints and writintg to the health department about these unacceptable living conditions. I wrote to the Governor, and Sherrif Crawford which went nowhere. Sheriff Crawford is the chair of the jail authority board by which I was assaulted by Officer Taylor physically when I tried to speak to the magistrate. I had to have my attorney and my family call several times to file charges against the jail. After my charges were filed against the jail, they did an internal investigation in which they never interviewed or spoke to me. They not once looked at camera footage or spoke to potential witnesses. The only individuals they spoke to for this internal investigation were other correctional staff; they lied in their investigation about what happened to me and therefore I was unable to press charges. Their internal investigation of their own employee showed he did nothing wrong - big surprise.
During my time at RRJ I was also institutionally punished by Superintendent Leaghbough and unable to participate in the workforce. Another incident I had with the VDOC was that I had time owed to me however I wound up serving around 40 days over my sentence. I wrote to Sherriff Crawford again who did nothing but ignore my complaints. My new attorney was able to compel the jail to fix my time, however, they still gave me 4 extra days to serve. My attorney James Jones called the VA State Police as well as the FBI about the issues going on at RRJ; the contraband being brought in by correctional officers and more. They confirmed that they had several complaints already that were being investigated.
Unfortunately, that was not my last time at RRJ, in April 2021 I returned there. While there I saw 4 men overdose on Fentanyl. I also saw a fellow inmate get severely beaten by officers which ended in a wrist fracture. A lawsuit was filed however correctional officers lied in their reports, and Woodley was put in solitary confinement instead of getting treatment. At one point during this time I was placed in solitary confinement as well because of false correction officer reports; a case worker cursed and threatened me and disallowed me to see the magistrate however I was punished. While in solitary confinement, otherwise referred to as “the hole”, inmates are harassed, abused, unable to use the phone lines or write or receive mail (if allowed it is never in a timely manner), and do not get outdoor recreation hours that are legally mandated. On weekends recreational time and showers for inmates in the hole are out of the question. One time I saw rodents and cockroaches crawling in the food, and on two separate occasions, I actually bit into rocks in the beans. The kitchen is unsanitary, with animal feces in the food, mildew on the walls, in the ceilings, and buckets to catch water from holes in the ceilings.
I wrote a letter to Delegate Carrie Coyner and other officials, as well as to Sherrif Karl Leonard and Sherriff Steve Kephart, who did present them to the board, Sherriff Crawford. To her credit, she finally forwarded my complaints to Superintendent Leaghbough for him to address the situation. Leahbough, to his credit, did actually meet with me and was always polite; while other officers would threaten me that I should stop complaining otherwise something would happen, he at least listened. He even once said he hoped I got clean and did not come back - however he never did make any progress on the issues I had submitted. The circumstances definitely did not improve. At one point while there I was in the medical center being treated and a call came over the radio about a 70-year-old male inmate who had fallen in the hallway. I heard two nurses casually say “we’ll get him, he’ll be okay”. Within ten minutes the other inmates and myself in medical were being led out to a secluded area where we saw them roll by a man on a gurney, covered up because he had died. It was the 70-year-old man, he had died from medical negligence and lack of medical attention after his fall. For the rest of my time at RRJ, I was placed in a mental health pod due to the guidance from a very helpful mental health worker. However, correctional officers would not allow me to participate in any of the mental health programs due to my past activism.
In 1983 I filed lawsuits in the US District Court in Norfolk, VA. When Leaghbough found out about these past filings, I was moved to a max custody housing pod amongst killers and rapists. Out of anger from my constant advocacy against the injustices done by the VDOC they threatened to file criminal harassment charges against me if I continued to speak about my time and file complaints.
As of right now, I have continued to advocate for myself and file with VA courts against the injustices done by the VDOC. I have filed complaints with the FBOP, DOC, Board of Local and Regional Jails, and with four sheriffs on the jail authority board. I will be reaching out to their attorney Jeff Goe to check the status of my complaints. If he does not respond or give a satisfactory answer, I will then be contacting a group of attorneys who specialize in this field of law. I will not be letting what was done to me go anytime soon, and I will continue to speak up for not only myself but also those men and women who have little to no voice inside those walls. If I could get a message to those individuals, it would be don’t give up, god had the situation, and if possible, address any complaints you have outside of the jail. Within RRJ’s system, with their internal investigations, nothing will be accomplished. The correctional staff will protect one another because they will always look down on us current and previously incarcerated individuals as less than. Remember that you are not! You deserve respect and humanity, just like anyone else. I hope that more former inmates, activists, attorneys, lobbyists, politicians, and volunteers will join together to continue to speak out against these corrupt, greedy officials. These jails need to either improve immensely or be just down in their entirety due to their unsafe and dangerous conditions. No human being, no matter what race, color, creed, socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, or anything else, should be subjected to the conditions that the VDOC is allowing.