WISE COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The body of Anwar Phillips was discovered on Jan. 4, 2022, in his solitary cell at Red Onion State Prison — one of Virginia’s two “super-max” prisons. A year later, the man accused of his murder is going to trial.
According to Phillips’ mother, Vernetta Phillips, her son and a fellow prisoner, William Pettigrew, were both in solitary confinement when Pettigrew transferred a hand-braided rope from his cell to Phillips’.
Pettigrew was indicted on charges of murder and strangulation in September 2022. His jury trial began on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023 — exactly a year after Phillips’ death — the trial is scheduled to continue until Feb. 10.
Natasha White is a former prisoner and survivor of solitary confinement who now works with Interfaith Action for Human Rights, an advocacy group supporting human rights in prisons across the country.
“[Phillips] was not a person that you can just do whatever to. So he’s been making noise for years,” White said. “And look, he came home in a body bag.”
According to White, Phillips’ death is a reflection of wider issues with the solitary confinement system in Virginia prisons like Red Onion.
“It mentally breaks you down, and sometimes, physically,” White said. “You know, our life — we thrive off of senses. We’re not created to be alone.”
Last month, 8News reported that 12 current and former inmates from Red Onion and Wallens Ridge — another “super-max” prison — have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) and several senior prison officials.
The lawsuit alleges that for over 20 years, the state has violated prisoners’ constitutional rights through something called the “Step-Down” program.
The program was supposed to be an end to solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. However, the plaintiffs claim that the program became little more than a semantic game. In addition, the lawsuit alleges their constitutional rights were violated by an arbitrary process designed to keep prisoners in inhumane conditions at the whims of corrections officers.
“How many people get out of there unscathed? How many suicides are you getting? How many mysterious deaths are you getting?” White questioned. “If there was open communication and something for these men to do, they wouldn’t be so angry.”
For now, the lawsuit — which has now lasted over three years — is at a standstill until certain disputes are resolved. The case’s next hearing is set for Monday, Jan. 9.