Incarceration Nation

Kevin “Rashid” Johnson vs. the Virginia Department of Corrections


Readers of Socialist Viewpoint are familiar with the writings of Kevin “Rashid” Johnson. His exposÚs of brutal prison conditions in the many states to which he has been transferred have brought him cruel and torturous conditions. On February 5, 2024, working with the organization Rights Behind Bars1, he filed a Complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division, demanding a jury trial. The plaintiffs are the Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC), Chadwick S. Dotson, and 12 other officials, officers, wardens, and guards, all in their official capacities. Below, we are printing the first section of the Complaint, which serves as a summary of the reasons for it. —Carole Seligman

“[Rashid] is experiencing brutal conditions not in spite of his talents as a journalist and his bravery as an activist, but specifically because of them.” [p. 3, the Complaint]

“Kevin Johnson is an incarcerated activist who believes in speaking out against injustices. He is acclaimed for his journalism, having published pieces with The Guardian, PBS, and other global publications, as well as producing two books. He has taken on the important role of publicizing inhumane conditions and brutal conduct of guards and certain prison officials, including in the Virginia Department of Corrections.

“Unfortunately, this critical First Amendment service has landed a target on Mr. Johnson’s back, and he is often the subject of unconstitutional retaliation by guards and officials.

“Most recently, Mr. Johnson was transferred away from critical medical providers—Mr. Johnson suffers from prostate cancer, chronic high blood pressure, hyperlipidemia, chronic edema, and other symptoms related to heart issues—to a supermax prison entirely across the state as retaliation for his Constitutionally protected conduct. This transfer came just days after Mr. Johnson published an article about misconduct at Sussex I State Prison, where he had been housed. The article specifically mentioned Defendants Chadwick Dotson and Beth Cabell as individuals to whom members of the public should express concern about Mr. Johnson’s treatment. The Defendants received numerous calls.

“Defendants transferred Mr. Johnson to Red Onion State Prison (“Red Onion”) across the state, not only violating their own transfer policies in the process but also brutalizing him with pepper spray without provocation at the beginning of his transfer. Upon arriving at Red Onion, Defendants cut Mr. Johnson off from all avenues of communication and any ability to report out about the system’s abuses. They also placed him in solitary confinement without the hearings dictated by their own policies and told him that they would move him to general population if he would agree to curtail his First Amendment-protected activities at Red Onion. Mr. Johnson refused, and he remained in solitary confinement.

“Mr. Johnson and over a dozen other individuals detained in solitary confinement began a hunger strike in late December 2023 to protest Red Onion’s punitive use of solitary confinement. Defendants quickly became retributive and torturous in an attempt to “break” the prisoners off their hunger strike.

“Defendants, who were entrusted with Mr. Johnson’s health and safety, denied him access to running or bottled water; housed him in an excessively cold cell without any means of keeping warm (sheets or extra clothing); deprived him of his hygiene supplies, prescription medications, and writing supplies; and prevented him from having showers or access to outdoor recreation and mobility.

“When Mr. Johnson needed water, he was forced to lap water out of his uncleaned toilet in his cell like a dog.

“Mr. Johnson has suffered severe dehydration that has required three emergency hospitalizations in the last month simply to keep him alive. But even that serious and expensive step did not quell Defendants’ campaign.

“Defendants instead sought a court order to force-feed Mr. Johnson on grounds that he was mentally incompetent rather than simply providing him his constitutionally protected rights. But the Wise County General District Court rejected this effort, noting that Mr. Johnson was cogent and competent, even after a month without food.

“Now, Defendants have hidden Mr. Johnson away in a largely shuttered prison facility and removed his prisoner ID number from their system, in a further attempt to avoid transparency, compromise, and to block Mr. Johnson’s ability to speak out against these life-threatening abuses.

“Mr. Johnson’s fact pattern is extreme, but the events that precipitated his hunger strike—the retaliatory transfer and placement in solitary confinement without means of communication—are not unique. Instead, this is a well-worn retributive technique that VADOC officials use to hide the truth of their unconstitutional and harmful behavior towards the individuals entrusted to their care. He is experiencing brutal conditions not in spite of his talents as a journalist and his bravery as an activist, but specifically because of them. This Court should intervene and conclude that the measures to which Mr. Johnson has been subject are not constitutional, legal, or humane.

“Kevin Johnson, the plaintiff, is a 52-year-old Black man who is currently imprisoned at the Powhatan Medical Unit in Virginia, a Virginia Department of Corrections facility. He has been detained at Powhatan Medical Unit since on or around January 27, 2024. Before that point, he was incarcerated at Red Onion from approximately October 30, 2023, through January 26, 2024, and Sussex I State Prison to approximately October 30, 2023.”


Case # 3:24 — CV — 00080