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D.C. women inmates get a rude reception at a Virginia state prison.

At about 5 p.m. last July 7, Kathy Akers, 50, walked into the dining hall at Fluvanna Correctional Center in Troy, Va., the state’s only maximum-security prison for women. Akers had arrived at the facility only a few months earlier. She’s one of the thousands of D.C. convicts who have had to serve their time in federal and state prisons across the country ever since the federal government took over responsibility for locking up D.C. felons, four years ago.

Akers and the other federal inmates were the last ones called to dinner that night. But as she and 15 others entered, they saw Virginia-state inmates who had been scheduled to eat earlier sitting at the tables. Akers knew that guards occasionally let inmates linger beyond the official 20-minute limit for eating, so she didn’t suspect anything was amiss until a Virginia-state inmate approached federal inmate LaTasha Smith.

“She asked what happened out there on the Boulevard,” Akers recalls, referring to an argument that had taken place earlier in the prison compound. “Before Tasha could respond, the state woman swung at her.”

Akers stepped back, thinking a brief fist-fight would ensue. Instead, the room exploded.

According to Akers and several other D.C. women who were present, 30 state inmates surrounded the women in line for their meals and attacked. Some of the assailants swung pillow cases and socks filled with metal objects, including combination locks and the coin box from a washing machine. Others wielded food trays. Witnesses say that the handful of officers in the dining hall frantically called for backup.

One D.C. inmate, Verona Winston, 48, managed to run out, but not before she was almost stabbed. “All you could see was blood,” she says. “People down. People hitting people with trays.”

Others weren’t as lucky. Candice Dixon, 24, a D.C. prisoner who is serving a four- to 12-year sentence for aggravated assault, sustained injuries to her head, neck, back, and lower body where the makeshift weapons had landed.

Shirley Boykins, 32, who is serving a 5- to 15-year sentence on a gun charge, survived the melee with a bruise on her back. “It was like a food fight and a brawl at the same time,” she says. “It looked like something from Animal House.”

The fight lasted for 20 minutes before the state inmates began to flee to avoid capture. Witnesses say that the guards locked the doors to the kitchen until more officers arrived and that additional officers then rushed in and grabbed the women who were still fighting. But by that time the brawl had largely died down. (Prison officials and the Virginia Department of Corrections can’t comment on the sequence of events in the assault, or authorities’ response to it, says department spokesperson Larry Traylor, citing pending litigation.)

Correctional officers placed all the women they had captured in holding cells or other spaces in the prison. Boykins says that she was kept temporarily in a broom closet, then a bathroom, while she was still covered with food. Dixon, who was bleeding from a gash in her head, says that she was sent to the infirmary for observation. Prison officials put the facility on lockdown.

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Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. After a lengthy investigation, prison officials identified six state inmates as responsible for the attacks. On Aug. 27, the Fluvanna County Commonwealth Attorney’s Office indicted all six on charges of possession of a weapon by an inmate and malicious wounding of an inmate, which carry sentences of up to 10 and 20 years, respectively. The first trial is scheduled to begin later this month.

Riots in women’s prisons are rare, experts say, but the tensions inside Fluvanna had been building for months; in retrospect, some kind of conflict seems to have been inevitable.

When Akers and 39 others boarded a bus from the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., to Fluvanna on Oct. 12, 2000, such an assault seemed unlikely. In fact, they thought they were going to a better place.

Several federal prisoners who transferred from Danbury say that their unit managers told them that the Connecticut prison was running out of space. They say prison officials had chosen them for the transfer to Fluvanna because of their clean disciplinary records.

Danbury unit managers also promised that Fluvanna would be much like a federal prison, with an open compound like the one at Danbury, where inmates are allowed outside their units to relax or socialize after work or classes. “We came here thinking it was a reward for being role-model prisoners,” says Akers, who is serving a five- to 15-year sentence on drug charges. “They made us feel like there would be better programs here.”

According to the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) contract with the Virginia Department of Corrections, the BOP was to send a mix of inmates from across the country. The inmates eligible for the transfer needed to have medium-security status, no record of an escape attempt within the past five years, no chronic mental-health or medical troubles, and no “chronic disciplinary problems,” says Traylor.

“They had to be low-level offenders,” concurs BOP spokesperson Tracy Billingsley. “But the main criteria was to get the inmates closer to home.”

Some of the federal inmates say that they would happily go back to Danbury, even if it is farther from home. Though billed as housing all custody levels, Fluvanna is run like a maximum-security prison.

Fluvanna Correctional Center sits a few miles east of Charlottesville. Across the street, horses graze in an open pasture and geese walk along the road. On a bright Thursday morning, prison employees stand outside the entrance, smoking and talking of applying for different jobs in the compound. In the lobby, three people are filling out applications to work there. On the wall behind the desk is a poster that reads “Show the respect you expect.”

Opened in 1998, Fluvanna is one of several high-security prisons Virginia built during a recent prison-construction spree. Its maximum-security lockup is supposed to be reserved for the most violent offenders and worst disciplinary problems. But the state overbuilt the prison by about 4,500 beds, so it has contracted out the extra bed space not filled by state prisoners. The BOP pays Virginia $78.12 a day for each of the 220 federal inmates at Fluvanna, says Traylor. The prison houses 1,050 inmates total.

In the eyes of BOP officials, Fluvanna isn’t much of a change from Danbury. “Both [institutions] are accredited by the American Correctional Association,” says Billingsley. “We’re confident that [the inmates’] basic needs are being met.

“Inmates don’t get a say in what institution they stay in,” Billingsley adds.

Of course, to the federal inmates, the differences between Danbury and Fluvanna are far from trivial. At Danbury, everyone is required to work, and the resulting wages are high enough to pay for phone calls home, clothes, toiletries, and other basics of living. By contrast, at Fluvanna, jobs are scarce, and the pay—starting at 27 cents an hour—is miserable. Prisoners can also take university-level courses at Danbury, but Fluvanna’s educational opportunities are limited to G.E.D. and vocational classes such as cosmetology and print shop. Federal prisoners also complain about having to pay for medical care that they got for free at Danbury. (Dixon, for instance, had to fork over $5 for an X-ray of the head injury she suffered during the July 7 attack.)

The federal inmates say that they applied for jobs and vocational courses on their arrival but that their names languished on waiting lists, some for nearly a year. The only positions the federal women say that they could get initially were in the kitchen. Those who took jobs there say that if anyone quit before six months was up, they received a disciplinary write-up.

To make matters even worse, the D.C. women say, rumors circulated before their arrival among the state inmates: The federal women would be getting perks such as microwaves in their units.

The dining hall was a site of conflict from the beginning. On their first night at Fluvanna, Winston recalls, state inmates who worked in the kitchen called them “bitches,” and muttered, “Y’all should have stayed your asses where you was” through the serving windows.

“I can’t see what they’re doing to the food,” says Winston, who is serving a 10- to 30-year-sentence for grand larceny. So she refused to eat it that day. For a time, the federal prisoners recall, guards escorted them to the dining hall, and they were separated from state inmates at recreation time. One D.C. prisoner recalls that guards and state inmates would also drop comments such as “You ain’t federal anymore. You in Fluvanna now.”

By the time a state inmate ended a romantic relationship with another state woman and began spending time with Smith, prisoners say, the tension between federal and state inmates had reached the boiling point.

According to witnesses, on the day of the fight, two state inmates who were friends of the scorned state prisoner confronted Smith and another D.C. woman during recreation on the prison compound. All of the women except Smith landed in administrative segregation. Federal inmates speculate that the ambush in the dining hall was retaliation for the fact that Smith escaped segregation while the state prisoners did not.

The riot ended quickly, but the trash talk didn’t. Federal inmates say that in the days immediately after the fight, they overheard state prisoners boasting. “They say stuff like, ‘We beat those fed bitches up,’” says one D.C. prisoner.

Prison officials, however, downplay the tension.

“I don’t think it was a gang thing—federal women vs. state women,” says one prison employee. “It just happened to be a fight between a state inmate and a federal inmate, that’s all.”

Nonetheless, Fluvanna officials have made sure to keep the federal and state inmates apart once again. In the hours after the fight, the few federal inmates who were living among state inmates were moved to the unit where the rest of the federal prisoners are housed. For several weeks after the riot, the federal women missed religious services, work, and classes because they weren’t allowed to mingle with state inmates. Prison officials also began searching federal prisoners before they entered the dining hall, in case they were trying to retaliate against the state inmates. According to several women, before the skirmish, the only time guards used to search inmates was after their meal on chicken day to make sure that the women weren’t sneaking pieces of chicken back to their units.

The BOP has contract monitors on-site, but the incident has not provoked any re-evaluation of its contract with Virginia. Prisoner advocates say that Fluvanna officials responded appropriately, but inmates’ troubles may not be over. “Such problems may be inevitable,” says Deborah Golden, staff attorney for D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services. “The BOP is sending our people to wherever there are beds on whatever contract terms it can negotiate for the lowest price.”

Inside the prison, some officials call the riot a “wake-up call,” and Fluvanna authorities have made some restrictions imposed after the riot permanent. Only in the past month or so have federal inmates fully returned to classes and work. The staff remains jumpy. An annual family day was canceled. Boykins says that officers made her sign a statement saying she didn’t feel threatened by another inmate after they overheard her debating loudly with a friend.

“The tension is still there,” Boykins adds. “But nobody wants to go through lockdown again. Everyone is keeping their feelings to themselves.”

Winston says that she doesn’t want to stick around to see what happens. She’s trying to transfer to a drug-rehabilitation program in another prison.

“I don’t care if they send me to Texas, California—anywhere—back to Danbury. I never thought I’d miss Danbury,” says Winston. “I tell the girls in Danbury, ‘Y’all better be glad you’re there.’” CP