For more than a year, Virginia's largest women's prison rounded up inmates who had loose-fitting clothes, short hair or otherwise masculine looks, sending them to a unit officers derisively dubbed the "butch wing," prisoners and guards say.
Dozens were moved in an attempt to split up relationships and curb illegal sexual activity at the 1,200-inmate Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, though some straight women were sent to the wing strictly because of their appearance, the inmates and corrections officers said.
Civil rights advocates called the moves unconstitutional punishment for "looking gay." The warden denied that any housing decisions were made based on looks or sexual orientation, and said doing so would be discriminatory. The practice was stopped recently after the Associated Press began questioning it, according to several inmates and one current employee.
Prisoners allege special harassment
Two current guards and one of their former co-workers said targeting masculine-looking inmates was a deliberate strategy by a building manager. Numerous inmates said in letters and interviews that they felt humiliated and stigmatized when guards took them to the separate wing — also referred to by prisoners and guards as the "little boys wing," "locker room wing" or "studs wing."
"I'm not one who's going to cry and say 'Oh my god I'm in prison and they're making my time hard,' you know. I deserved to go for my crime and I did my time there," said Summer Triolo, who spent nearly six years at Fluvanna for theft before being released in February 2008. "But my punishment was by the judge to do time in prison away from my family and home. That was my punishment, not all the extra stuff."
Living conditions in wing 5D weren't worse than the rest of the prison, and no prisoner said she was denied services other inmates received. However, the unit went on lockdown more often than others, and the women said they were verbally harassed by staff who would make remarks such as, "Here come the little boys," when they were escorted to eat. The three guards confirmed such remarks were made.
Guards blame security manager
The two current guards and former guard William Drumheller said Building 5 manager Timothy Back, who is in charge of security and operations for that area, came up with the idea to break up couples by sending inmates to the wing. Gradually, they said, the 60-inmate wing was filled with women targeted because of their appearance. The current employees asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs.
"I heard him say, 'We're going to break up some of these relationships, start a boys wing, and we're going to take all these studs and put them together and see how they like looking at nothing but each other all day instead of their girlfriends,'" Drumheller said.
Drumheller said Back told him the plan one day in a prison office. The other two guards, who are both female, said Back's reasons for moving the prisoners were commonly known among guards, though officials would deny the reasons for the moves if inmates asked or complained.
"They sort of played it off like that's not really what they were doing," Drumheller said.
Warden denies discriminatory treatment
Warden Barbara Wheeler called the policy a figment of the inmates' imaginations.
"With female offenders, relationships are very important, and often times when they're separated from those relationships they might perceive it as punitive," Wheeler said.
Wheeler said her employees wouldn't segregate inmates based on their appearance or sexual preference, and said she wouldn't condone it if they did.
"That would be very discriminatory," she said. "That's like saying I want to put all the blacks in one unit and all the whites in one unit," something federal courts have ruled illegal.
A dozen inmates interviewed in person or by letter contradicted Wheeler, saying there's no doubt why they were moved. Triolo said she had gone four years without getting in trouble until she shaved her shoulder-length brown locks. She soon was given a new cell in 5D. She couldn't hope to see her girlfriend in the cafeteria because her unit always went first or last to keep them away from other inmates.
Inmates felt degraded; guard quits
Triolo and Trina O'Neal were two of the first inmates sent to 5D in the fall of 2007.
"I have been gay all my life and never have I once felt as degraded, humiliated or questioned my own sexuality, the way I look, etc., until all of this happened," O'Neal, 33, who is serving time for forgery and drug charges, wrote to the AP.
Drumheller worked as a correctional officer at Fluvanna for two years but said he quit in August because he didn't like the way the inmates were treated. Wheeler said she didn't recall the circumstances surrounding his departure.
The prison declined repeated requests to make Back available for an interview, and the AP could not find a working home telephone number for him.
Separation violates Constitutional rights
Sex — whether forced, coerced or consensual — is forbidden in prisons primarily to prevent violence and the spread of diseases.
Segregating gay inmates in men's prison has been upheld by federal courts to protect them and maintain order. Courts have ruled against total isolation or harsher conditions for those inmates.
Separating women based on appearance, though, violates the Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and freedom of expression, said Helen Trainor, director of the Virginia Institutionalized Persons Project. Trainor said civil rights and gay rights groups have been hesitant to sue because of the expense and the "certainty of failure" in the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the nation's most conservative.
Inmates insist 'unnecessary harassment' continues
Inmates say prison officials have more aggressively policed prisoner sex since Wheeler became warden in 2004. If inmates are caught having sex they are sent to isolation. Last year, there were 59 violations for sexual acts. As of mid-April, there had been 11 this year, according to the prison.
Prison officials have taken other measures to curb sex, restricting nighttime bathroom use and reducing time cells are unlocked during the day.
Prisoners say officers also have separated couples who haven't been caught having sex.
"Point blank, this institution is ran by homophobes, and the rules instated here are based on your sexual preference not what is right or wrong," wrote Casey Lynn Toney.
Esther Gordon, 45, who lived in 5D, concurred.
"They're worried about who goes with who, or who's having sex with who," she said. "It's just unnecessary harassment."