WISE COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The body of Anwar Phillips was discovered on Jan. 4, 2022, in his solitary cell at Virginia’s notorious Red Onion State Prison. Another prisoner has been charged in his death — but Phillips’ mother says she wants answers the Virginia Department of Corrections won’t give her.
Vernetta Phillips shared the circumstances of her son’s death as they were told to her by Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steven Davis. 8News contacted Davis and the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) to confirm the information, but both declined to comment, citing the ongoing case.
According to 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’. The Commonwealth’s Attorney and VADOC claimed to Vernetta Phillips that there is surveillance footage of the crime.
Pettigrew was indicted on charges of murder and strangulation in September and will face a jury trial in the Wise County Circuit Court on Jan. 4, 2023 — exactly one year to the day after he purportedly killed Anwar Phillips.
Questioning the Timeline
Calls made to 911 and obtained by 8News show that Anwar Phillips was discovered a little after 4 a.m. on Jan. 4, 2022. In the call, made by a nurse at the prison at 4:54 a.m., she tells dispatchers that they discovered Anwar unresponsive “about 40 minutes ago” and had been performing chest compressions since then.
The nurse also tells a 911 dispatcher that Phillips was suffering a cardiac arrest — but does not mention strangulation, a hand-braided rope, or any suspicion that he had been attacked by another inmate.
“If you’re saying the gentleman across the hall in the opposite cell murdered my son, why was there no rope when they went and opened the door?” Vernetta Phillips asks. “Why were they calling it in as cardiac arrest when clearly there was supposed to be a rope with a ligature?”
The nurse also tells the 911 dispatcher that Anwar Phillips was “stiff as a board” and, later, that he was “stiff and cold.”
Algor mortis and rigor mortis are two processes that occur in the body after death and are used as a way of estimating the time of death when a body is discovered. According to the National Institutes of Health, algor mortis (the cooling of the body) happens at about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit per hour after death, and rigor mortis (the stiffening of the body) begins about two hours after death but can take up to 12 hours to set in completely.
Vernetta Philips also says that the commonwealth’s attorney told her that her son was last seen alive at around 6:30 p.m. the previous day. That leaves an almost ten-hour window during which Anwar Phillips’ status was apparently completely unknown.
But according to a VADOC spokesman, inmates in restorative housing — the department’s new name for what is commonly known as solitary confinement — are supposed to be checked on every 40 minutes.
“Inmates in Restorative Housing are checked on an irregular schedule, with no more than 40 minutes between checks. This is to prevent the establishment of a known ‘routine,'” said the VADOC spokesman. “This is maintained 24 hours per day and the frequency is increased for inmates with greater needs or who present greater security risks, up and an including constant surveillance.”
The commonwealth’s attorney declined to confirm to 8News whether surveillance footage of the murder exists, saying it could “taint the potential jury pool.” But Vernetta Phillips claims the commonwealth told her such footage does exist. What she wants to know now is, “Who was manning the cameras?”
Phillips also wants answers about how this could have happened to her son in a maximum security prison.
“My son is dead. He didn’t fall in the shower, he didn’t trip down the steps — he was locked in solitary confident at a maximum security prison,” she said. “That should’ve been the safest place in the world.”
Who Was Anwar?
Phillips said that although her son wasn’t perfect, he was paying his debt to society.
“My son Anwar had dealt with a lot of challenges, teenage years, getting in a lot of trouble,” she said. “Then we found out he was bipolar, so you know, that’s an adjustment for a family.”
Anwar Phillips pleaded guilty to murder in 2016 and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Vernetta Phillips says that regardless of the crimes her son committed, he wasn’t sentenced to death.
“They’re still human beings! They’re flawed, they made a mistake, and now they’re paying their debt to society — they shouldn’t be murdered in that process,” she says.
Phillips says her son had suffered several gunshot wounds before he was incarcerated and had persistent medical problems that made it difficult for him to walk and sit. But she denies that her son was suicidal — a theory she says the prison brought up to her, suggesting that Anwar’s death was an assisted suicide that he participated in with Pettigrew.
Now, Vernetta Phillips says she not only wants the person or persons responsible for Anwar’s death to be brought to justice, but for the prison system to be reformed so that this doesn’t happen again.
The Long Road to Reform
Red Onion State Prison, alongside the commonwealth’s other supermax prison, Wallens Ridge, has long been the focus of reformers who want to eliminate the use of solitary confinement.
The Department of Corrections has been heavily criticized for its use of solitary confinement, including two highly publicized cases of men kept for years in conditions advocates say amount to torture. One man, Nicolas Reyes, was kept in solitary for 13 years because he spoke limited English, and another prisoner lost the ability to speak coherently during his 600-day stint in solitary.
Solitary has also been found to put inmates at increased risk of suicide.
Natasha White is a former prisoner and survivor of solitary confinement who now works with the VA Coalition on Solitary Confinement.
“Solitary confinement will put you in a space where your mind wanders, you see things, sometimes you can’t un-see things, sometimes you hear things — it’s traumatizing,” she says. “For most, you find no way out, death is easier than being stuck in this cell, treated like garbage.”
Gay Gardner is an advocate with the group Interfaith Action for Human Rights, and she says one of the biggest challenges has been simply finding out what’s actually going on in Virginia’s prisons.
“Our advocacy on the issue of solitary confinement and all forms of mistreatment in prison is very challenging precisely because of the lack of transparency with which the prison system operates,” she says.
In 2021, efforts to create an independent oversight body for VADOC failed, but advocates saw a limited win earlier this year when the General Assembly created a work group to make recommendations on how to end solitary confinement for longer than 14 days.
Advocates have criticized the study because VADOC has refused to allow an external review board to oversee the research, as is standard in academia.
Both Gardner and White say that cases like Phillips’ highlight the need for urgent reform in VADOC.
“The case of Anwar is devastating because you don’t know the truth,” White says. “The worst part about solitary confinement is that no one cares about you anymore.”
Gardner adds that whatever the result of Pettigrew’s trial, VADOC needs to answer for their role in Anwar Phillips’ death.
“It raises questions about the responsibility of the Department of Corrections to keep people safe,” Gardner says. “How do they allow this to happen? And I’m afraid we won’t know the full answer to that.”