- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

TROY, Va. | 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.

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.

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,’ ”

Mr. Drumheller said Mr. Back told him one day in a prison office. The other two guards, who are both female, said Mr. Back’s reasons for moving the prisoners were commonly known among the 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,” Mr. Drumheller said.

Warden Barbara Wheeler called the policy a figment of the inmates’ imaginations. “With female offenders, relationships are very important, and oftentimes when they’re separated from those relationships they might perceive it as punitive,” she said.

Ms. 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.

Mr. 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. Ms. Wheeler said she didn’t recall the circumstances surrounding his departure.

The prison declined repeated requests to make Mr. Back available for an interview, and the AP could not find a working home telephone number for him.

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 prisons 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. Miss 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, which they say is the nation’s most conservative.

Inmates say prison officials have more aggressively policed prisoner sex since Ms. 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 the time cells are unlocked during the day.

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