TROY, Virginia – 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 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 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, and they were taken to the cafeteria first or last to keep them away from other inmates. 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,"' Drumheller said.
Drumheller said Back told him the plan one day in a prison office. The other two guards, who are both female, said Back's reasons for moving the prisoners were commonly known among guards, though officials would deny the reasons for the moves if inmates asked or complained.
Warden Barbara Wheeler called the policy a figment of the inmates' imaginations.
"With female offenders, relationships are very important, and often times when they're separated from those relationships they might perceive it as punitive," Wheeler said.
Wheeler said her employees wouldn't segregate inmates based on looks or sexual orientation, and she wouldn't condone it.
"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, she said.
A dozen inmates interviewed in person or by letter contradicted Wheeler, saying there's no doubt why they were moved. Triolo said she had gone four years without getting in trouble until she shaved her shoulder-length brown locks. She soon was moved to 5D, away from her girlfriend.
Triolo and Trina O'Neal were two of the first inmates sent to 5D in the fall of 2007.
"I have been gay all my life and never have I once felt as degraded, humiliated or questioned my own sexuality, the way I look, etc., until all of this happened," O'Neal, 33, who is serving time for forgery and drug charges, wrote to the AP.
Drumheller worked at Fluvanna for two years but said he quit in August because he didn't like the inmates' treatment.
The prison declined repeated requests for an interview with Back, 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 prison has been upheld by federal courts to protect them and maintain order, though courts have ruled against total isolation or harsher conditions.
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.
"Point blank, this institution is ran by homophobes, and the rules instated here are based on your sexual preference not what is right or wrong," wrote inmate Casey Lynn Toney.