'Solitary's Red Onion Prison Is Pretty Isolated

by Kayla Hawkins
Courtesy of HBO

Being isolated and alone for 23 hours a day is a trauma that most people would struggle to even conceptualize. But the HBO documentary Solitary: Life in Red Onion will explore what life is like behind bars in the incredibly restrictive, solitary confinement of Red Onion State Prison, which has become one of the toughest supermaximum security prisons in the USA. Red Onion State Prison is located in Virginia, along with other high security American prisons. More specifically, it is in Wise County, just about 4 miles away from the small town of Pound, Virginia. It's in the western part of the state, and close by to the Kentucky-Virginia border.

According to a Washington Post report from shortly after the prison opened in 1998, Red Onion is incredibly physically isolated. "Red Onion and [neighboring prison] Wallens Ridge sit atop mountains in Southwest Virginia coal country, hundreds of miles from Richmond, Northern Virginia, and the other urban areas most super-max inmates once called home," the newspaper reported. It also pointed out that the location is so remote, it can cause families to visit less. A Hartford Courant report from 2000 chronicled the struggles of Connecticut inmates sent to Wallens Ridge because of crowding, increasing their isolation.

Courtesy of HBO

But Red Onion has impacted more than the prisoners. According to The Washington Post, both Red Onion and Wallens Ridge had a positive effect on the local economy, employing about 800 people. A year later, the Hartford Courant echoed a similar sentiment and reported that Wallens Ridge had helped employment in Big Stone Gap, a town just 4 miles away with a population of almost 5,000, when it had recently suffered economic setbacks when the Westmoreland Coal Co. issued massive layoffs.

Because Red Onion is a state-run prison, it's up to lawmakers of Virginia to change the rules, rather than the federal government. This is important because in 1999, Human Rights Watch published a 24-page report claiming that the prison had many human rights violations. (Bustle reached out to the Virginia Department of Corrections for comment on this report, as well as on Solitary, and has not yet received a response.) HRW was denied access to Red Onion, so they weren't able to observe its operations firsthand, but claimed in the report's conclusion, "Unable to find enough 'worst of the worst,' the Virginia Department of Corrections is simply sending men to the prison who could be safely confined elsewhere."

Red Onion State Prison's location seems tied to many aspects of it, so hopefully Solitary: Inside Red Onion will explore even more about the background and current status of this facility.