Mass incarceration of the mentally ill is not only immoral, but can have tragic consequences, such as what happened at Fluvanna Correctional Center
Around 8 a.m. on March 7, 2023, Anitrel “Kiki” Webb, a 45-year-old inmate at the all-female Fluvanna Correctional Facility in Troy, Virginia, went to take a shower.
Officers found her almost four hours later, hanging from the rod, dead.
Webb had been sentenced in Roanoke the previous April to 15 years with five suspended for malicious wounding. After admission, Fluvanna staff assigned her to the Acute Care Unit (ACU), a restrictive housing facility designed for individuals with severe mental illness.
Later, Webb moved to E-wing, a residential treatment unit (RTU) intended for those who are higher functioning than those in ACU. Then, for reasons no inmate there understands, officials placed her into general population.
It was the wrong move. Staff and inmates saw that Webb’s profound mental health issues were worsened by the merciless general population conditions. “I was in the wing with her for a couple of months,” recalled a fellow inmate, Denise. “In that time, she appeared unstable. I heard that she asked for help because of bullying.”
Still, Webb had an outgoing, empathetic side, which made her mistreatment at the hands of alpha inmates and administration and her untimely death even more tragic. “She was nice to me,” wrote one inmate who goes by the pseudonym Unsilenced. “She brightened up the room with her sense of humor.”
According to Prisonpolicy.org, Virginia has the highest per capita mass incarceration rate of any democracy in the world, with 749 per 100,000 citizens behind bars. Of these, 161 per 100,000 are female.
These outrageous numbers underscore the commonwealth’s sordid history of being incapable of meeting its own standard of providing “reasonably adequate” health care to its prison population. A lawsuit filed by Fluvanna inmates in 2012, Scott v. Clark, alleged that deficient care violated Constitutional protections against “cruel and unusual” punishment. A courtapproved settlement in 2016 presented 23 terms of compliance that had to be met. Because of delays implementing those terms, in July 2017, two inmates died from undiagnosed health problems. In 2018 the court again ordered Fluvanna to meet the compliance standards. An inspection in April 2022 found Fluvanna compliant in all the standards but two.
This lawsuit was buttressed by a 2018 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report (table 1-1, pg. 5) which notes that among Virginia’s female inmate population, 53.4% were diagnosed with mental health conditions categorized as “serious” (at least 2 on a 0-4 scale, with 4 the most serious), compared to 17.7% of the male population.
The audit also noted that Virginia’s incarceration numbers are inflamed by a draconian compassionate release policy that doesn’t consider serious but nonterminal, non-permanently incapacitating illnesses as worthy of early release. In fact, the report acridly noted that “Virginia is the only state [emphasis added] that does not have a policy under which inmates who have complex health conditions or are permanently incapacitated may be considered for release.”
According to the Virginia Department of Corrections Mental Health and Wellness Operating Procedures 730.3, Fluvanna, with all of its deficits, is the sole provider of acute mental health care for women in the Virginia prison system. “It’s deeply disturbing that there are 80-yearold women at Fluvanna who have dementia and don’t know why they’re there and are being cared for in such an appalling manner,” Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center told The Virginia Mercury in an August 14, 2019 report. “Those women should not be incarcerated.”
According to inmates, some women in Fluvanna’s ACU never get outside recreation. One woman has allegedly been in ACU for over 12 years, and never gets out of her cell but to shower. “She is alone, no one to help her,” wrote Unsilenced.
Another inmate, Denise, said that “I think one of the worst things the DOC did was to stop sending inmates to state mental health facilities when needed.”
Other inmates report that the Fluvanna staff is spread too thin, paid poorly, badly trained and frequently preoccupied with computer games and their phones. “Walk-throughs are supposed to be done every thirty minutes,” former inmate Stephanie Angelo said in a recent phone interview. “Why did it take them four hours to find Kiki?”
Unsilenced asked, “Where was the Building 6 staff that day? Why weren’t they doing the job they were hired to do? For four hours, no one noticed that [Kiki] wasn’t in her cell or the dayroom.”
The events leading up to Webb’s death are equally worrying to those who knew her. “I am more disturbed by the fact that she kept asking for help,” wrote “Sally,” a former Fluvanna inmate who has since been moved to another facility. “An officer here that used to work at Fluvanna commented that he couldn’t believe she was in a general population unit.”
Webb purportedly struggled to access her medicine, “especially if she missed pill line, and no medical personnel would then put forth the effort to bring it to her,” wrote Unsilenced. “This is sad because it was well known that she needed her medication.”
Inmates note that in addition to staffing issues, overcrowding and COVID-19 lockdowns, there is a rampant illicit drug problem at Fluvanna. Angelo worked in the infirmary during her entire three-year incarceration and stated that during that period the prison fired at least two nurses for bringing drugs inside. Several others quit. Another anonymous inmate reported that a fellow inmate in Building 3 was severely beaten on March 13 in a drug dispute. “There is a large drug problem within this compound,” she wrote, “and many victims pay dearly.”
Angelo recalled that she saw several suicide attempts by other inmates, usually by cutting. Another told of how one inmate, “Florence,” talked of suicide while destroying all her belongings during a mental health crisis. Only a call from another inmate to Florence’s mother – who in turn called watch command – may have prevented Florence’s death. According to the inmate, “no one would listen to her.”
It is unknown if Webb’s death is in any way connected with the latest turmoil at Fluvanna. In late April, with no explanation, VADOC abruptly removed Warden Mariea LeFevers. In addition, inmates reported crime scene tape around offices of deputy wardens and FBI agents asking questions. The shakeup briefly prompted renewed cries from some lawmakers for independent oversight.
Sally wrote that Webb’s death has caused “aftershocks in the system.” Officers have “made it clear that they will be doing their rounds and checking on everyone, as they do not want that to happen to anyone here.”
While procedural change may hopefully emerge from Kiki Webb’s death, Virginia’s nightmare mix of mass incarceration and mental illness practically guarantees that more inmates — especially those in the throes of a crisis — will die alone and forgotten, as she did, then have their death covered up by the very system that aggravated their condition.
“This is how we treat our mentally ill,” Sally said of the Webb incident. “We punish and cage them, ignore their cries for help. We offer no proper treatment, only sedation and judgment. IF, a BIG IF, they make it, they are sent out into a world further stamped by those who failed them.”
Dale Brumfield is a journalist and the author of twelve books. He is also the former executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.