Red Onion Prison Was Notable Before 'Solitary'

by Kayla Hawkins
Courtesy of HBO

When it premieres on Monday, Feb. 6, HBO's documentary Solitary: Inside Red Onion will give a firsthand look at one of the strictest supermax prisons in the United States. Since prisons often become known because of the people being housed within them, viewers may expect to see some recognizable Red Onion State Prison inmates in the documentary. However, this prison is better known for its practices of solitary confinement than its prisoners. Still, there are and have been some inmates held at Red Onion after being convicted of highly publicized crimes.

Currently, Lee Boyd Malvo, also known as one of the "Beltway Snipers," is being held at Red Onion following convictions terrorism, capital murder, and use of a firearm during the commission of a murder for his role in multiple shootings in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland in 2002. In a 2012 interview with the Washington Post, Malvo recalled details about his involvement in the crimes and the newspaper said that he's starting to "understand the enormity of his actions — the trail of death and loss and pain he left behind."

Malvo was sentenced to life in prison without parole, however, the Associated Press reported in January 2017 that Malvo's public defender sought to have his life sentence thrown out because he was convicted at the age of 17, and the Supreme Court has since ruled that life sentences for minors are unconstitutional.

While other notorious American prisoners like Ted Kaczynski and Charles Manson are held in high security supermax prisons like Red Onion, none have been held in the actual Virginia facility. But what makes Red Onion such a unique prison is that many of its inmates have become notable because of what they have done while inside the prison.

In 2012, a group of prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest the Red Onion conditions, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, and a group called Solidarity With Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers claimed that it was over 10 conditions including indefinite segregation and better cleaning supplies. In response, the director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, Howard Clarke, told the newspaper, "There has always been a way for them to get out [of segregation] ... Quite frankly, I'm not sure what they're concerned with because the things they have listed are all things that we are satisfying."

Joseph Giarratano was a specific Red Onion prisoner notable for his actions within the jail. Currently housed at Deerfield State Prison, Giarratano has been placed in several different prisons since he was originally convicted of the 1979 murder and rape of a 15-year-old and the murder of her 44-year-old mother and sentenced to death, as reported by the New York Times. Though Giarratano at first confessed to the crimes, he later claimed that there were inconsistencies in his confession and other evidence has been found that has made some doubt his guilt.

A 1990 People article reports that, while appealing his case on Death Row, Giarratano explained how he changed after spending years appealing his case. Formerly a drug addict who confessed despite having no memory of killing the two victims, Giarratano eventually "taught himself law and became a leading spokesman for prisoners’ rights," according to the magazine. Considered a "jailhouse lawyer," one case he initiated for other Death Row inmates was even brought to the Supreme Court in 1989.

Giarratano was most recently in the news in January 2016 when a two-day law school symposium chose to analyze his case, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The article also explains that though Giarratano's death sentence was changed to life in prison in 1991, he was denied a new trial.

Giarratano also helped Washington Post reporter Colman McCarthy teach a college course on prison, and for a period, helped teach prisoners as well. According to the Catholic Reporter, McCarthy claimed that Giarratano "has experiential knowledge on how the Eighth Amendment that forbids cruel and unusual punishment is violated every day in America's prisons ... he encourages the students to use their gifts to create a peaceable society."

Once HBO's Solitary: Inside Red Onion premieres, the public will become aware of many more Red Onion prisoners' stories.