- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

A Virginia prison guard's decision to fire nonlethal rubber pellets at a couple of convicts from Connecticut who ignored an order to stop fighting has a state lawmaker and family members from the prisoners' home state upset.

"This is very extraordinary stuff," said Connecticut state Rep. Michael Lawlor, an East Haven Democrat who contends that Virginia prison guards are using unnecessary force. "It would never happen in Connecticut."

The controversy began Monday when a fight broke out between two inmates at about 8 p.m. at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Va. Guards yelled at the two combatants to stop, then an officer fired a blank warning shot a signal for all inmates to fall face-down on the floor from a shotgun.

After another verbal warning failed to stop the scuffle, the inmates were shot in the "lower extremities" with so-called stinger rounds hard, rubber balls about 1/3 of an inch in diameter, according to Virginia corrections spokesman Larry Traylor.

"There were really no serious injuries whatsoever," Mr. Traylor said.

The prisoners were treated at the prison infirmary and released.

"The reason we have this policy in place is for the protection of other inmates and our officers," Mr. Traylor said. "The corrections officers … were completely within procedure. We are dealing with adults, and adults know the rules. These adults did not obey the rules, and they suffered the consequences."

Carol Westberg of West Haven said her son, Daniel, was one of the wounded inmates. She said her son called her Tuesday.

"Those jerks just fired their 12-gauge shotguns at him," she said. "He was on the floor and didn't get medical treatment for an hour and a half. I'm afraid he's going to come home in a body bag."

Connecticut prisoners tell family members they feel they are being "warehoused" in the gigantic Virginia facilities, according to prisoners' rights groups.

And family members worry that the Connecticut prisoners will only become more hardened criminals after mingling with dangerous felons from other states.

"The Connecticut families have been very adamant about opposing their loved ones being moved there," said Jean Auldridge, director of Alexandria, Va.-based Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, a prisoner advocacy group.

Since October, some 480 Connecticut prisoners have been moved to Wallens Ridge to ease crowded facilities in Connecticut and to save money, state officials say. Prison costs are lower in Virginia than in Connecticut.

Connecticut's contract with Virginia allows 500 inmates to be housed at Wallens Ridge for $11 million a year.

Critics of the contract, though, say the Virginia system is plagued by racial intolerance, and Connecticut lawmakers say they are concerned about an FBI probe into allegations of abuse made by New Mexico inmates who were shipped to the prison.

"What kind of policies do they have to let this happen?" asked Mr. Lawlor, who warned that Connecticut could be held liable for injuries suffered by inmates. "Innocent people get hurt," the legislator said, describing how the rubber pellets can get lodged under the skin.

Mr. Lawlor said prison overcrowding could be eased if the state put some inmates in treatment facilities instead of prisons.

Connecticut DOC guards do not carry guns or other weapons, said Christina Polce, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Correction. "We rely heavily on canines," she said.

If a fight breaks out, supervisory guards are allowed to use a chemical spray such as Mace to break it up, she said.

One of Mr. Lawlor's colleagues in Connecticut, Rep. Robert Farr, said firing nonlethal pellets is an effective way to keep order.

"This is a very humane way to control your population," the West Hartford Republican told the Associated Press. "It protects … corrections officers from having to risk injury by physically breaking up a fight."

Virginia prison guards use stinger shotgun shells, which are filled with buckshot-size rubber pellets that sting on impact. Each shell costs $5.25 and has 18 .32-caliber rubber pellets inside. The stinger rounds have never killed anyone and are used only in Virginia, Nevada and California.

Virginia officials have the stinger shells at five prisons for their most violent inmates. Rubber bullets were first used in 1996, when a Powhatan Correctional Center guard fired them at three inmates who were beating another.

Virginia prison guards use a variety of nonlethal weapons, including shields and stun devices.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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